Collective Grief

By Ken Wells - 10/01/2021


Series Two; Blog Sixty-Nine

One in 500 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began. More people have died from COVID than during the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918. People older than 85 make up only 2 percent of the population in the U.S., but a quarter of the total death toll. These grim statistics suggest that the COVID pandemic is more than just a bad flu season. It is a crisis that appears to continue on an on.

There are similarities with the impact of betrayal experience in a partner relationship to the traumatic experience of COVID-19. It is estimated that 40% of Americans cheat on their partners for a variety of reasons. Polls suggest that 90% of Americans recognize infidelity to be a relationship crisis of immoral behavior.  In the presence of the loss of life from COVID or loss of relationship through betrayal, suffering from grief and heartache paralyzes and devastates while the outside world marches onward.

Pain from the loss of a loved one cuts to the bone. You want to scream for the world to stop and recognize the hurt and sadness that is dominating your world.

Consider the comparable struggles from loss that correspond between the pandemic and relationship betrayal.

Secrecy: Secrets are about things we hide so no one can see.  It includes when others know but don’t want to talk about it.  With the pandemic, you hide from the anxiety that you may have been exposed or might be a carrier of the virus. You dread that you may have been careless.  It makes tracing the COVID-19 virus very difficult.  You hide from the helplessness that someone you love may die from the virus and you cannot do a damn thing about it. You read stories or have personal experience of only being able to say goodbye to your loved one from a distance while the world soldiers on. Relationship betrayal has resemblance. It’s embarrassing for others to know that your partner has cheated. You want to keep it a secret. There is tremendous anxiety that builds because you dread that it was your fault. You, too, want to hide from the feeling of helplessness that your relationship is in jeopardy or is dying and you cannot change it. You can only say goodbye from a distance while he/she marches on with someone else. Though alive, you feel dead inside. It is so hard to talk with anyone else about it.

No recognized day of mourning: Currently, over 2000 people die from the pandemic in the U.S. each day. Gathering for mourning is discouraged or greatly modified. Many who have watched their loved one die alone, grieve alone. Because the pandemic marches on, efforts to memorialize those who have lost their lives to the pandemic is blunted in a collective sense. For example, 9/11 is memorialized with an established onsite memorial. Throughout the years there has been a moment of silence throughout the country on the hour of that day in 2001 as a way of recognizing the tragedy across our country. This ritual was practiced for many years. Rituals for collectively grieving the loss of life from COVID-19 have been put on hold, waiting for the pandemic to end. As a result, there is incompleteness to the grief process.

This is also reflected in relationship betrayal. Commonly, betrayals are not memorialized. Quietly, betrayed partners suffer in isolation. Often, those who betray numb the pain of the losses they create with the adrenaline of a new relationship or experience of independence. Betrayed partners feel the pressure to move on with life though torn up inside with confusion and heartache. There is hope that the reality of betrayal is only a bad dream. Unlike death experienced in the pandemic, the death of relationship is manifested while the betrayer lives life with another thriving with the joy of a newfound relationship. The experience is agonizing for the betrayed partner with no ritual to memorialize the sudden reality of loss.

Survival mode existence in isolation: The continuing spread of the COVID virus keeps our brains in survival mode. We are stressed and preoccupied rather than reflective and present to emotional experience of grief. Quarantine is demanding and isolation is difficult. Cities around the world are shutdown as a result of the spread of COVID-19. Melbourne Australia is currently in its 6th lockdown since the pandemic began.

It is difficult to observe the loss of life and grieve while in survival mode. The same is true with relationship betrayal. When a partner suddenly faces the loss of relationship through betrayal, the priorities of life become one of mere existence. There is a hollow routine of taking care of the responsibilities of life. It feels like quarantine. It is a gigantic effort to get out of bed and just endure the pain. It all takes place in an emotional bubble that feels like quarantine. The world goes on about you while you struggle to survive the agony of relational betrayal.

Complicated grief intersects the losses from the pandemic and betrayal. It heightens the need to practice collective grieving. In isolation we don’t make it to the other side. Collectively we can get through the greatest losses of our lives. We can hold rituals that memorialize and heal our losses in community. As a nation, a neighborhood or a 12-step community we can work through complicated grief by refusing to let those who grieve be forgotten. Every small gathering can heal and grieve together. Social connection need not be destroyed because of pandemic or betrayal loss.

A grief shared is a grief diminished. Having a sense of feeling connected and being in it together can be really helpful in healing and coping with grief.  Divisiveness destroys and disenfranchises connection in a community. We can unify in the presence of difference through common shared loss. Everyone knows loss. We can remember and reflect and be present with emotional loss through small gatherings (less than 10) even with masks as necessary.  Now is a time that begs for a sense of unity to manage our emotional losses, shock and fear through collective grieving. Today is a day of destiny that calls for each of us to insulate and not isolate. We must take the risk of becoming emotionally naked and allowing another individual to touch our spirit of vulnerability.

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