Should organizations, campaigns and movements that build community or run membership programs do more to acknowledge grief and engage in ways their members experience it?
Many community and nonprofit leaders may nod to the presence of grief and offer some support. We certainly see that in response to natural disasters.
But should acknowledging, confronting and supporting grief be a strong and visible pillar of community and membership programs regardless of organizational mission? I think so. I don’t know what this could or should look like but we all benefit from building community muscle and grief, when we are often at our most vulnerable, is a time to create and strengthen community.
We don’t do grief well…
…and that’s a big problem for our communities, governments and organizations.
Grief is largely unacknowledged within our communities and communications. It’s hard for many people to find, access or feel comfortable seeking grief support.
These seem like community spaces in which people often turn to for grief support: schools, churches and online community resources like Facebook groups and posts as well as GoFundMe campaigns.
That leaves a lot of open space, a lot of missing infrastructure, for community grief. Most of us, I think, live with weak grief communities and language.
Why does this matter? Is it possible that much of our cultural hostility and narrative of polarization is borne of collective grief and anxiety?
If we can’t recognize, share and talk about grief we lose empathy. People experiencing trauma are looking for support. Those lacking empathy and support are often susceptible to extreme actions and beliefs and the communities supporting those actions and beliefs.
Is untreated grief a contributor to broken communities and broken politics? If so, we should address grief at all levels of our community work.
Grief and the future of community
This post began in drafts a few months ago when I jotted down this line:
Is grief a future of community? Would that be good or bad?
The past two years have pushed a lot of collective grief on us: COVID, climate change disasters and a drumbeat of conspiracy theories and geopolitical chaos that leave many (most?) people with higher baseline anxiety if not waves of existential dread.
And, of course, we all experience the loss of friends, parents, children and pets. It’s no surprise that Michelle Zauner’s story of losing her mom to cancer when she was in her mid-20s, Crying in H Mart, has been a NY Times bestseller for seven months now.
We’ve always sought ways to understand and process individual grief. The pandemic and (waves hands) everything. out. there. has brought us heavy collective grief.
In a recent paper, Acknowledging bereavement, strengthening communities: Introducing an online compassionate community initiative for the recognition of pandemic grief, Dr. Deborah Ummel and colleagues look at how access to shared grief support strengthens community:
Compassion and care can establish solidarity needed to center community advocacy: Individuals naturally have the impetus to express solidarity and come together to compassionately support each other and can do so in a way that also tackles wider social injustices, an issue that professionalized, privatized help cannot solve.Dr. Deborah Ummel
Also consider Dr. Viviana Zelizer’s piece, When We Were Socially Distant, Money Brought Us Closer. Dr. Zelizer looks at the rise in giving during the pandemic. There were more donations to charity. Much more direct giving to people, including mutual aid efforts. At a time of grief and uncertainty, more people used money to build connection to others.
A possible lesson: we invest in community and we invest in others to find footholds and connection in slippery, uncertain times. Grief, personal and the communal grief of the pandemic, can be the most slippery of times in life. As community and membership people we should offer footholds people can hold onto when they’re falling.
I’m not sure what the solution is but it would be good to see community and membership leaders, thinkers and funders investing in grief and how we do it.
A few more articles on the intersections of community, membership, solidarity and grief.
- ”The project is about giving activists and movement organizations what we need to catalyze grief for change.” This is an inspiring conversation with Malkia Devich-Cyril about Malkia’s vision for the Radical Loss Movement.
- Coordinates of speculative solidarity by Barbara Adams.
Solidarian storytelling prioritises mutuality and justice over empathy and aid. Rather than maintaining existing conditions and their inherent power dynamics, stories of solidarity seek transformation through conviviality.
- “Not supposed to happen in your 20s”: Grieving young adults find support around virtual dinner tables. This Denver Post article from November, 2021, centers on the growth The Dinner Party, a national organization with local groups providing grief support for people age 21 to 45.
- How to live in a burning world without losing your mind, by Liza Featherstone. The way out of this confusion is neither feel-good solutionism nor submitting to the apocalypse. Instead, we need to learn to make space, in our conversations, activism, and media, for feeling grief, anxiety, guilt, and fear about climate change, no matter how difficult or dark.
- Acknowledging bereavement, strengthening communities: Introducing an online compassionate community initiative for the recognition of pandemic grief by Deborah Ummel, Mélanie Vachon, and Alexandra Guité-Verret.
…online communities constitute a powerful space for community members to gather and advocate for greater awareness of the inequities found in end-of-life care and bereavement services, to denounce abusive situations experienced by many individuals who died from COVID-19 complications, and to fight against the lack of recognition experienced by numerous caregivers.
- Loss and grief in the COVID pandemic: more than counting losses and moving on by Alida Herbst.
- Helping a Community Understand the Complexity of Grief by Phyllis R. Silverman Ph.D.
- American Democracy: A Status Check. This conversation between Jane Coaston (New York Times), Masha Gessen (The New Yorker) and Corey Robin (Brooklyn College) is about interpreting the Jan 6 insurrection a year later. But it’s really a rumination on the chaos of people and communities not able to recognize and cope with perceived losses (aka grief).
- Rebellious Mourning: The Collective Work of Grief.