On the evening of January 29th 2017, a man open-fired into a crowd at the Islamic Cultural Center of Québec City, killing six people and injuring nineteen others. On October 1st, 2017, a man opened fire into an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, killing 58 people. On December 14th, 2012, a gunman opened fire at an elementary school in Connecticut, killing 28 children and adults. The list goes on. These events affect not only the families of those killed, the surrounding neighborhoods, or the country as a whole. People all over the world are shaken by these acts of violence.

 In many cultures, grief is seen as a collective experience, expressed through community rituals and verbal declarations. 
Large scale, collective mourning is typical of traumatic events. Regardless of whether the event occurred in one’s own community or in a neighboring city, the loss can be personally devastating. When the event is a collective loss, like in the case of mass murders, or even the death of a famous musician, coping can be difficult because we are used to bereavement being highly individualized. While the answers to these questions of grief are complicated, their impact is important to understand, and to demystify.

What is Community Loss?

Community, or collective grief is the umbrella term for the grief that is felt by a community, society, village, or nation in the wake of an event such as a war, natural disaster, act of terrorism, or the death of a public figure. In many cultures, grief is seen as a collective experience, expressed through community rituals and verbal declarations. These expressions of communal grieving are often seen as integral aspects of addressing and working through experiences of loss. When grief is expressed and acknowledged by others, this can be incredibly validating. This validation has the capacity to help those who are grieving acknowledge their pain, and embrace their feelings so that they may work through them.

Grief can also be an incredibly lonely feeling. When one has experienced a loss, it can feel as though no one could possibly know or understand how you feel. By expressing grief outwardly with others, this loneliness may dissipate— even if only slightly. When the connecting power of grief is recognized, it then has the power to be transformative. People who share a common feeling are empowered when they realize they are not alone, and that they can look to others for help and understanding. This then gets at the heart of communal grieving: community practice and ritual. When we grieve collectively, we are connected to a wider network of people through ritual acts.

Ways we Cope Together

Mourners gather to remember the victims of the Quebec City shooting. Image via http://darkroom.baltimoresun.com/

Some of the most common expressions of collective grief are through vigils or public funerals. In the case of the Quebec City shooting, there were numerous candlelit vigils held across Canada and the world: acts of solidarity with the families and friends of the victims, commemorating those who were lost. France turned off the lights of the Eiffel Tower after Las Vegas, and countries will often lower their flags to half mast in response to a tragedy. These events act as contexts where people can grieve together; where they can cry and speak and share with one another. These events validate the feelings of anger, frustration, hurt, and deep sadness that are felt, and offer a space for these feelings to be openly expressed.

A very common practice is the creation of a public memorial; something that has been done in a number of different ways around the world. The act of designing, building, and visiting such memorials serves as an ongoing means of remembering and grieving. These acts of creation and pilgrimage offer a way for people to work through their loss in a myriad of ways that are both individual and collective.

collective mourning

 “You didn’t know this person, how can you feel so sad?” 
Another novel approach to collective memorialization is the Ghost Bike project. While cycling infrastructure has grown in North America, and general consciousness of cycling safety has increased, cyclists are still killed in large numbers. The Ghost Bike project is a grassroots campaign to highlight the dangers of cycling in the city. When a cyclist dies, people will take a donated bicycle, paint it entirely white and lock it up near the site of the accident. Sometimes these bikes are removed by the city quite quickly, and other times they stay locked up for years, and becomes a place where the community can leave flowers, pray, and pay their respects to a fallen comrade.

When Communal Grieving Fails

The 15 Columbine Shooting memorial crosses. via www.thenypost.files.wordpress.com

The 15 Columbine Shooting memorial crosses. via www.thenypost.files.wordpress.com

 Even in the face of a community tragedy, that community may be divided by how they want to grieve. 

Community grieving is not always met with open arms. When we put something out into the public sphere, it becomes open to criticism and critique. Grief is a difficult emotion, and some people feel it is better kept private. Because of this attitude some public memorials have been met with resistance. For instance, what happens when Ghost Bikes are removed by the city immediately? People may want to grieve the cyclist, whom they may not know, but have no option to do so. Or, what happens when a public Facebook memorial is taken down by a family member? All those memories, pictures and condolences suddenly disappear.

A great example of complicated community grief is the Columbine Massacre in Littleton, Colorado, which was the largest mass killing in American history. Following the Massacre Greg Zanis drove from his home several states over to build and erect fifteen crosses to commemorate the lives lost: the thirteen victims, and the two shooters. Zanis’ choice to commemorate all fifteen lives was met with a mixture of confusion, compassion, and outrage. Many saw the 15 crosses as being deeply disrespectful to the 13 victims, while others took compassion towards the killers. Zanis’ crosses were stolen, destroyed, burnt and desecrated. Yet Zanis continued to erect and the crosses on more than one occasion.

Eventually, the city intervened, removed the crosses and created a separate memorial in a fenced off area overlooking the school. Any attempt at an unofficial memorial to the victims, or killers, was promptly removed. Many asked themselves if government sanctioned memorials were the best option, especially given the importance of Zanis’ original tribute. Zanis’ memorial crosses remind us that, even in the face of a community tragedy, that community may be divided by how they want to grieve.

Today much of our collectivized grief happens online, which has led to its own kind of failure. We’ve all likely noticed the outpouring of messages after a celebrity has died, and perhaps have even thought to ourselves “you didn’t know this person, how can you feel so sad?” There is a feeling amongst many people that the expression of grief in a public forum is inauthentic. However, we should remember that this sentiment comes from a history of privatized grief, and the shaming of outward displays of emotion. Some people may see online grief as a failure, while others accept it as a healthy process.

Memorial for the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. via people.com: AP PHOTO/BRANDON DILL

Like all things that are shared, collective grief and grieving can be complicated. We may not always agree, and we may not always feel the same way. But these difficulties are not a reason to keep grief to ourselves. Sharing our grief with one another and expressing it together, even in the face of differences of opinion and belief, forces communities large and small to engage with one another and deal with lossIt creates a shared network of mourners, who may not feel so alone because they have each other.

Turning again to the shooting in Las Vegas, we see extraordinary evidence of the power of community grieving, and how great loss has the power to facilitate great strength. At vigils held around the world, thousands of people took the streets, crying and singing together. In moments of difficulty, we struggle together. In moments of pain, we connect with one another, and these connections strengthen us in ways that cannot always happen if we remain alone.


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