When Grief Runs Deep

Over the weekend I went to a salon for the first time since the pandemic hit.  I watched as a hairdresser donned a mask and the small talk began to flow between him and his client.  I couldn’t hear their discussion over the buzz of the shears but couldn’t miss the stream of tears that flowed down the hairdresser’s ebony cheeks and into his mask.  His head sank and I will never forget the moment when the client reached their hand around the chair to grab his.  

They held a silence that spoke volumes.  

It was a silence that spoke of grief.  Grief for how this pandemic has permanently shifted our realities and relationships.  Grief for how this pandemic is disproportionately affecting specific communities, particularly communities of color.  Grief for how we are losing people to the systemic racism that has plagued our country for centuries. 

What we are feeling is grief...and it runs deep.

Recognizing Collective Trauma

Over the past few weeks we’ve come to recognize that our communities are in trauma.  “Collective trauma” is a term that has become so in vogue during this time that it’s even been mentioned in the Rolling Stone.  The concept is not new.  We’ve seen collective trauma time and time again from slavery, the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb, Vietnam, and 9/11, just to name a few.

But what is it exactly?  Collective trauma occurs when a large group of people suffers a massive trauma that results in a shared emotional bond.  Dr. Molly Castelloe describes collective trauma as “a shared experience of helplessness, disorientation, and loss among a group of people” where helplessness is held central.  

Psychologist and author Jack Saul recently stated in an interview that the danger of collective trauma is that it has the potential of “unraveling our social fabric and giving us a sense of a lack of belonging and a loss of communality.”  He went on to say that the most serious impact of collective trauma is social fragmentation, division, and conflict, which is what we are seeing playing out in the streets and on the news right now.  We are even seeing it in our workplaces as we find it more challenging to communicate, strategize, and make significant decisions when our teams are scattered for what appears to be an indeterminable amount of time.

Beginning to Heal

As organizational leaders, you may be asking what you can do to help begin healing from collective trauma or how you can support your team during this time.  Know that supporting your team begins with recognizing that you are also reeling and require healing from this collective trauma.  Below you’ll find a few starting points:

1st - Accept that we are now in the heart of collective trauma.  Acceptance is the first of the 5 stages of grief.  We find control in acceptance, and with control comes the ability to figure out a pathway forward.

2nd - Recognize that we have been living in a state of “moral fatigue” for months now.  When taking a trip to the grocery store, talking to a friend, or even touching a keypad could carry potentially serious implications, our minds grow weary.  Give yourself a break and take it one decision at a time.   

3rd - Stock up on compassion.  Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it will manifest in different ways.  Be patient and check in with yourself and with others.

Finally, your work is to feel.  I know that doesn’t sound very strategic but feeling breeds empathy.  Empathy drives connection and conversation.  Connection and conversation lead to more effective teams as we learn what this new normal holds for us.

May it be filled with a stronger sense of what it means to be a community together.

Joell Beagle

Joell Beagle

Joell was a key member of the SAFE Institute training team until 2020, when she transitioned into a new role serving families at Dell Children's Hospital.