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That’s grief? How to handle collective grief.

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Janet glanced at her watch for the seventeenth time. She was late again. This was no time for a cab ride. “Bike!” she yelled, as she fussed with her navy blue, pinstriped jacket.

Immediately she got to the office, her boss, Mr. Tsado, summoned her.

Yup, she was in big trouble.

“What is going on Miss Janet?” he asked.

“I’m so sorry, sir, I won’t be late again.” she responded.

Mr. Tsado scowled. “This is beyond apologies. You’ve been late practically every day in the last two weeks. You have not met your quota for eight days straight even though you used to be top three. Why is that?”

“I’m really sorry sir. I’m just having some personal issues. I’ll sort it out.”

“See that you do. You’re dismissed,” he said, as he pushed his glasses further up his nose.

Janet left his office feeling more frustrated but as soon as she stepped out, I.K her friend pulled her aside. “What was that about?” he asked.

“Lateness and sloppy performance,” she replied. “I’m trying, God knows, but it’s been so hard to focus. I feel so helpless and out of control, eating anything and everything to boost my mood. Yet, it isn’t working.”

“Hmmmm. Since when?” I.K asked.

“I think it was since the protests went south. I was initially hopeful about things becoming better but the senseless killings and lootings… Mehn, it’s very draining. So many unanswered questions…”

“Ahhhh. I think you are grieving,” I.K said.

“Grieving? Isn’t grief what you experience when you lose a loved one?”

“Yes and No. The fact is that many of us are grieving right now but we aren’t aware. You could grieve for a person, a thing, or for a situation. There are over a dozen different types of grief, but what many people are experiencing now is collective grief. It’s a type of grief experienced by communities or societies over traumatic events or shared losses.

“Interesting,” Janet said dryly.

“In fact, there’s a talk we should go listen to. It’s sure to help.”

“Alright. Anything that works.”

They made their way to the hall after work. It was dim but Janet could make out people sitting in groups on the stage. Soon after, a smartly dressed woman walked up, and without any introduction, began speaking:

“On a stone-cold floor, Subuola sits, her grey weathered hair further withered by grief. Her clothes are drenched with tears as she mourns Tunde, her son, who was killed in the violence that swept through the country days ago. She oscillates between denial, sadness, and distress, and her whole body aches. Her sleep is gone. She refuses to be consoled.

Matthew stares into the space that once housed his wares. His shop, stripped bare by senseless looting. Even the doors and the signboard were taken. Despite the ache in his stomach, he can hardly eat. He is confused, worried, and irritable as he wonders how he would repay the loans he took to set up the shop.

Oh, and there’s Fati. To the unobservant eye, she lost nothing but she was in deep pain. She had held on to a little that things would get better, at least for her children. Then the hope started to grow but it all came crashing down with the turn of events. She’s more than devastated by the overwhelming sense of helplessness. She is anxious, frightened by loud sounds, and can hardly concentrate on any task.

All of these people are manifesting the symptoms of the grief they feel. It’s personal, yet it is shared. It’s a different experience for each person, yet it’s the same gut-wrenching grief.

Grief, sadness and pain can be collectively shared by a group or community following a loss
Image by John Hain from Pixabay

As we behold it all, we wonder, could this this real? We are still in denial so we expect some pot-bellied director to scream “Cut!” into a loud megaphone. Then we would close our eyes and everything would be okay.

But no. It’s as real as the skin on our faces. Subuola, Matthew, Fati, and thousands of others in situations they didn’t expect. They try to move on but it all seems dark.”

The narrator paused as one of the huddled forms on the stage tried to get up but sat down again, dejectedly.

“The question then is: how do we, as a people handle this grief? How do we cope with this flood of emotions coursing through us?” she continued, as the actors on the stage began demonstrating her words.

“First, we should be honest. Grief is normal and necessary after a loss. We must own the emotions we feel and allow ourselves to grieve. Bottling it up has never been a strategy for dealing with emotions, it’s only useful for the bottles in a factory, and we are human, not bottles. By the way, even the bottles burst when the pressure within them gets too high. Expressing how we feel verbally or in written form can often be a great place to start. Numbing or suppressing pain with alcohol or drugs only makes it worse.

Also, we must understand that processing grief is not a straight line. It goes around in cycles. There are highs and lows, and there are no limits on how long it’ll last. We can laugh when we feel like it and cry when we need to. It’s totally okay to do something other than bemoan the loss, and that doesn’t in any way diminish or invalidate the grief we feel.”

“Ahhh!” she purred, “We need to give and receive help in any way we can. There’s no running away from that. Support from family, friends, colleagues, groups, or even that random person will go a long way if we are willing to accept it. Finding someone to encourage, checking up on someone, and just staying connected is going to help us all come out strong.

If something has helped you navigate grief before, this is a good time to dig it up and use it. Whether it’s watching a movie, hanging out with friends, writing, sleeping, or helping others. Use the tool that has worked before.

Also, we must give ourselves permission to take help from Counsellors and other mental health experts when we need it. Some experts have graciously provided their services for free. For example, She Writes Woman Mental Health Initiative has a toll free number anyone in Nigeria can call. The Coalition of Mental Health Professionals in Nigeria, the Aisudo foundation, and so many others have also circulated numbers of professionals that we can call. It’s important to safeguard our physical and mental health.

One more thing. We are all different and respond differently so we must be tolerant of one another. Live and let live. And when it’s all said and done, remember that it’s not over until we give up. So LOOK UP!” she said pointing upward as she walked off the stage.

A moment of silence followed as we gazed up, waiting for what would happen next.

Suddenly, a ray of light flickered from the side. Someone on the stage made her way towards the light, and as soon as she did that the light got a little brighter. Another person moved towards the light and it brightened again.

Keeping hope alive will help navigate grief
Image by Jan Brzeziński from Pixabay

Individually and in groups, people gravitated to the light, and the brighter it became till it became a flood light so powerful that the whole theatre was brightly illuminated.

The darkness was gone and the people were beaming with smiles.

“LOOK UP! LET HOPE ARISE!” the speaker said off-stage. Then the actors bowed and left the stage.

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