How to cope with collective grief—and even turn it into action

Grief is a universal experience. Understanding that can help you recover, and even inspire change.
Yellow, red, and white roses left at a memorial for the victims of the Half Moon Bay mass shooting. A white sign behind the bouquets says "as a community we grieve."
Flowers are placed to mourn the seven victims of a mass shooting in Half Moon Bay, CA, on January 24, 2023. Li Jianguo/Xinhua via Getty Images

As a New Yorker, there’s a difference in whether it’s cold or “brick” outside. Cold weather is when you throw on a sweater before heading out. When it’s brick, you try to stay home as much as possible to avoid ending up like a human glacier. But the local lingo didn’t apply much this winter, with record-low snowfall and above-average temperatures across New York City.

A warm winter is more than just losing a few snow days. It’s knowing that the world will be dealing with more scorching heat waves and droughts, and natural disasters like the deadly flooding caused by Hurricane Ian in Florida and Cuba last year.

Climate change is only one of humanity’s long list of problems. This month we mark the third anniversary of the COVID pandemic, a disease that has killed millions worldwide and is becoming more chronic like the flu. On top of that, Turkey and Syria are still facing the aftershocks of a historically deadly earthquake, and soaring food prices from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could worsen global hunger for years to come. 

[Related: How to manage your mental health as traumatic events pile up]

There seems to be no shortage of community-wide tragedies. Likewise, these events are taking a toll on people’s psyches. Whether conscious or subconscious, you might mourn a loss of safety and security, on top of the more obvious layers of sorrow. But these feelings can also help you be the change you need to move forward in this ever-evolving world.

Collective grief is both a shared and unique experience

Some tragedies, like a mass shooting or police brutality, resonate among an entire group of people. “Grief is a normal reaction to loss,” says Kriss Kevorkian, a thanatologist and founder of the counseling service, A Grieving World. “When it’s collective grief, we’re experiencing that on a larger scale with more people.”

Collective grief can take hold even if you don’t personally know the people directly affected. When the Uvlade school shooting occurred, there was a nationwide outpouring of anger and sorrow over the murders of the teachers and children. Violent events like these force you to rethink life and the safety of your family, says Kevorkian.

Younger generations have become the most vulnerable to collective grief, especially with environmental anxiety. Kevorkian says that government failure to stop climate change has caused children to become more helpless and apathetic. When young people like Greta Thunberg do speak out on climate change, they are mocked and subject to verbal abuse.

Your brain and body on grief

Grief doesn’t stay in one corner of your body—it consumes your entire being. You might feel more tired than usual from tossing and turning all night. Maybe you’ve lost your appetite or have trouble keeping food down. Research shows that the first few months of grief can affect your body’s immune system activity and increase your risk of blood clots.

When your mind is weighed down by sadness, anger, and loneliness, there is little space to focus on other matters. Having “grief brain” can make it feel like you’re in a fog. Everyday tasks such as watering the plants or taking out the trash become really challenging. As you try to process your loss, you might forget things like where you placed your keys or an important doctor’s appointment. 

Grief brain happens because your mind recognizes the stress and emotional trauma as a threat, triggering the entire body’s fight-or-flight response. Brain regions like the amygdala signal the alarm through stress hormones that elevate your heart rate and increase your blood pressure, upping your anxiety and panic to keep tabs on the stressor. 

When you don’t deal with the heavy emotion, your brain protects itself by going into constant survival mode. Believing it’s in danger, it allocates more energy and resources to fear centers like the amygdala. Your brain might also decide to escape the stressor by metaphorically running away. It might dissociate from daily happenings, for example, to give you a mental break from negative emotions. “Deciding how to approach your grief can foster healing as opposed to delaying it when we try to ignore or deny reality,” says Jasmine Cobb, a social worker specializing in grief and trauma at Visual Healing Therapeutic Services in Texas.

Uvalde mass shooting victims' families hugging outside of a silver community center during a grief counseling session
Families gather and hug outside the Willie de Leon Civic Center where grief counseling was offered in Uvalde, Texas, after a mass shooting in May 2022. Allison Dinner/AFP via Getty Images

Consume your grief before it consumes you

The good news is that grief-related stress on the brain is reversible. Meditation and mindfulness can train you to focus on the present moment instead of reliving the past or dissociating from future threats. Going outside for a 30-minute walk instead of doom-scrolling or watching the news can help clear and calm the mind. Crying can also be a healthy release of stress as it releases feel-good hormones such as oxytocin and endorphins. 

There is no normal amount of time you’re supposed to grieve. You can spend months or years mourning, only for a news story or movie to trigger your pain all over again. “There are three words I really can’t stand, ‘get over it,’” says Kevorkian. “Grief never ends.” 

While time can help with the grieving process, it’s important that you’re actively working on your emotions and any unresolved issues related to the loss. Cobb says speaking with someone you can confide in is important, whether it’s a family friend, therapist, or a spiritual leader. There is also power in shared grief. People who have gone through a similar experience can help provide support in overcoming your grief. “Find your community who can hold a torch for you when you’re unable to do that for yourself,” advises Cobb.

Turning collective grief into collective action

Grief is one of life’s greatest teachers, says Kevorkian. It shows you how to live in the present and appreciate all that you have right now. Beyond acceptance, taking action can help you wrestle with some of the hopelessness you might feel when dealing with events out of your control, Kevorkian explains.

[Related: The biggest tool we have to fight climate anxiety is community]

One example of a group turning pain into lasting change is Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). In 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner was killed by a drunk driver—a man who had just gotten out of jail two days after his fourth DUI arrest. For the next few years, Cari’s mother, Candace, used her daughter’s photo and story of her accident to raise awareness and change California traffic safety laws. Candace went on to form MADD, a political-advocacy group that gives other grieving parents the opportunity to feel like their tragedy was not in vain. 

“It’s easy for us to stay in bed under the covers and wallow in despair,” says Kevorkian. But finding the courage to take action can help you get out of your head and connect with others sharing similar distress. Hopefully, with time and work, the world will seem a little less bleak.