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Collective Grief healing in the COVID era

Christopher Guider, MA, LMHC, NCC

The suffering caused by COVID-19 is staggering. Around 6.3 million people have died worldwide from the contagion, with the U.S. death toll coming in at over one million and counting. Anxiety and depression have increased globally by twenty-five percent since the beginning of the pandemic, while depression rates have tripled in the United States, afflicting every third American adult. Behind the statistics are real human beings—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers.

The countless private griefs of the COVID pandemic have accumulated into a reservoir of collective sorrow. The losses extend far beyond the death toll. We have lost relationships, jobs, school, safety, trust in government, activities that give our lives meaning, and the ability to prioritize what unites us over what divides us. To recover, we must come together as a community to mourn these tragedies.

This article describes the many types of grief the pandemic has unleashed, while exploring how private pain can be healed through meaningful communal rituals.

The Five Gates of Grief

Many think of grief as involving the loss of a loved one. But we can also grieve the loss of friendship, community, dreams, jobs, and any meaningful activity. COVID has caused or worsened many of these less obvious griefs.

To help us understand grief’s varied expressions, psychotherapist and grief specialist Francis Weller (2015) proposes five major “gates,” or ways, through which grief enters our lives.

Francis Weller’s Five Gates of Grief
Everything we love we will lose
Places that have not known love
Sorrows of the world
What we expected and did not receive
Ancestral grief

First Gate: Everything We Love We Will Lose

Weller’s first gate—everything we love we will lose—is perhaps the most obvious. The pandemic has reminded us that human life is incredibly fragile and transitory. Caught up in our daily routines, it can seem like everything is safe and secure. In reality, we are always just a hair’s breadth away from loss.

While this truth can be difficult to accept, it refocuses our attention on what matters. Grief often reveals the futility of worldly pursuits, such as material possessions or social status. This motivates us to live according to our highest values and appreciate every opportunity for connection. In this sense, the grief caused by COVID is a call to be mindful of each passing moment, to take nothing for granted.

Second Gate: Places That Have Not Known Love

The second gate of grief refers to the parts of us that have not been acknowledged, accepted, or loved. This could be related to our bodies, race, sexuality, identity, or traits that were not welcomed in our families, relationships, and communities. When any important part of ourselves is not validated, we struggle to feel whole, opening the door to grief.

While our differences are real, we have lost sight of what we have in common—the need to feel loved, respected, and supported; the ache to belong unconditionally.

The political and social divisions that escalated during the pandemic brought these wounds to the surface. In the COVID era, many experienced a lack of tolerance or outright animosity from those with opposing views and values. This reminded many of past instances of being criticized, judged, or shamed, adding another layer to the grief we currently face.

While our differences are real, we have lost sight of what we have in common—the need to feel loved, respected, and supported; the ache to belong unconditionally. Weller (2015) asserts that community can offer this by serving as the “holding space for our most painful stories.” The implication is that healing happens when we see our private pain as inseparable from the suffering of the community.

Third Gate: Sorrows of the World

COVID has given us a close-up view of the sorrows of the world—Weller's third gate. This includes the unequal distribution of vaccines, the plight of the impoverished, the interruption of schooling and social lives, and the myriad ways in which the pandemic has contributed to human suffering. Disturbing images of overwhelmed hospitals, individuals straining to breathe, and family members separated from their sick loved ones have left an indelible mark.

These sorrows cry out for public acknowledgment and processing as a first step toward healing. Many are beginning to do this by connecting with others around their COVID-related grief. For example, a volunteer-run online memorial allows the bereaved to post tributes and stories about loved ones lost to COVID. A memorial wall in London features thousands of pink and red hearts commemorating victims of the pandemic. In Bergamo, Italy, oxygen-producing trees were planted in a park next to a hospital to honor the city’s COVID victims who perished there. These projects provide a communal space to process individual grief and view it as part of an interconnected web of loss.

Fourth Gate: What We Expected and Did Not Receive

Weller’s fourth gate of grief entails what we expected but did not receive. This includes dreams, hopes, and plans that did not come to fruition. COVID pressed pause on many people’s lives, causing them to miss weddings, funerals, and other social rituals. Children could not go to class; high schoolers missed out on prom and graduation events; workers lost their jobs; relationships suffered in the claustrophobic confines of lockdown.

Missing out on communal activities has led many into isolation, which Weller (2015) views as a key driver of grief: “What was once a seamless intermingling of body, family, community, clan, ecology, and cosmos has been reduced to a narrow realm where we live as an isolated cell.” This loss of community involves not just events, but also the simple experience of being in close physical contact with others.

While devastating, the isolation of the pandemic has been a reminder of how individual well-being depends on remaining connected to others. Our lives gradually lose color if we cannot share our experiences with those we care about. As Weller (2015) puts it, “We are designed to anticipate a certain quality of welcome, engagement, touch, and reflection.” When these needs are not met, grief follows.

Fifth Gate: Ancestral Grief

Our interconnectedness with those who came before us is the key focus of Weller’s fifth and final gate—ancestral grief. This type of grief encompasses experiences of violence, genocide, racism, and other traumas our ancestors endured. According to Weller (2015), we carry the burden of our forebearers’ tribulations. For disadvantaged groups, COVID was a painful reminder of long-standing societal inequalities, such as lacking health care access among immigrants, indigenous peoples, and communities of color.

We cannot meet the challenges of the contemporary world as isolated individuals. Only community can save us.

The isolation and societal division brought into stark relief by COVID reflect the loneliness of living outside of community. “In a very real way,” writes Weller (2015), “we have lost our connection to the land, language, imagination, rituals, songs, and stories of our ancestors.”

But it is this realization that can motivate us to build deeper communal bonds and address social injustices. One thing is for sure: We cannot meet the challenges of the contemporary world as isolated individuals. Only community can save us.

Grieving and Healing Together

Expressing grief in community is crucial to healing the many losses described in this article. When shared with others, grief can tear down our defenses and open our hearts. Ritual is a powerful means of working with our pain in a way that connects us to others. Mourning with others “offers us the means of tending wounds and sorrows, for offering gratitude, and for reconciling conflicts” (Weller, 2015).

In the sacred space of ritual, our private grief becomes part of a communal experience that eases our burden and cements our belonging with others.

Communal grief rituals come in many forms. Reminiscing with others about those we have lost is a ritual. Praying or meditating with others around a common point of focus is another variation. Even psychotherapy is a kind of ritual in which suffering is shared, explored, and healed in the presence of another person. Regardless of the type of ritual, the crucial element is that two or more people join together to pay tribute to their losses through a collective act, such as sharing stories or observing silence. In the sacred space of ritual, our private grief becomes part of a communal experience that eases our burden and cements our belonging with others.

As the pandemic slowly retreats, we must seek out opportunities to share in this way with others. While the desire to return to normalcy is understandable, COVID has irrevocably altered us. Grief rituals empower us to navigate our new collective reality, honor our many losses, and find solace and support through community. If collectively acknowledged, grief carries the promise of renewal and reinvigoration.

If you would like to learn more about grief, see our handouts on The Grieving Process, The Tasks of Mourning, the Grief Fact Sheet, and our guide on Grief Psychoeducation.