The Revolutionary Power of Grieving in Public

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By Yolande Clarke-Jackson

Everyone is grieving. We may not always know what someone is grieving, or at what stage of the grieving process they are in, but they are grieving, and so are we. We are all grieving—something. Our grief may be individual or collective, but everywhere we look, we can find grief standing as an obelisk to remind us of our mortality or to appeal to our humanity.

Since grief can be isolating, disorientating, and even polarizing, we often try to ignore or bury it. We don’t want it taking up too much space or attracting too much attention. It can be a burden, and one that fills us with unnecessary feelings of shame at that.

But there’s evidence that supports that sharing the burden of grief in public invites others to aid in the healing process. It can also allow a stronger social resilience to discuss topics of grief and mourning. And it connects us to community in ways that may be able to enact change. In short, externalization and communal care of grief can be transformative.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) defines grief as “the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person.” Jamie Eaddy, thanatologist, activist, and founder of Thoughtful Transitions has a different definition for grief. She says, “Grief is our human response to loss, change, and transition.” As a thanatologist—someone who studies death, dying, grief, and bereavement—she believes the experience of grief extends beyond being able to name whom we are grieving. “Beyond people, it is ideas and safety and all of those things that are not necessarily directed toward us but are felt as losses emotionally for us when they’re no longer here.”

No matter whom or what we are grieving, Eaddy stresses the importance of recognizing and processing our grief. “We know that grief is felt or experienced in the body like stress. And what does stress do to the body? It impacts your brain, your immune system, your heart.”

Research supports that beyond physiological distress, unattended grief can also negatively impact mental health, including prolonged grief disorder, which according to the APA, can make sufferers incapable of performing normal activities because of deep, overwhelming feelings of sadness.

The Emotional and Psychological Benefits of Acknowledging Grief

Christiana Awosan, a licensed therapist and founder of Ibisanmi Relational Health in New York, says when the emotions of grief remain trapped in the body and aren’t processed, “we physically, emotionally, and psychologically become paralyzed.”

“It’s important to acknowledge not only the loss that we experience but also the process of letting ourselves know that someone and/or something significant has shifted in our lives,” she says.

Melissa Burkhead of Massachusetts says that when she was overwhelmed with grief, her first instinct was to isolate. “When I lost two sister friends and an aunt in a 12-month period, I felt overwhelmed and didn’t want to talk about it or even get out of bed,” she says. “But when I started going back to church, and people started asking why I hadn’t been attending, a friend suggested the grief group being held once a week. I attended for six weeks, cried lots of tears, made lots of new friends, and slowly began to feel happy again.”

In contrast, Julia Mallory of Pennsylvania says after her son was killed seven years ago, she felt she had to “grieve publicly and talk candidly about her loss, and the many layers of loss, even if it conflicted with what people felt grief was supposed to look like.” She says, “I felt and heard in my spirit that I needed to speak openly and publicly about it.”

Awosan says acknowledging grief “allows you to be patient with yourself and give yourself grace to feel, express, and accept the waves of grief. And in turn, you’ll also have the capacity to provide others with the room to do the same.”

This was true for Mallory. After she began her very personal healing journey, she recognized the need for more compassionate spaces for others to process their grief. She is currently the owner and operator of a community creative space called TenOh!Six where she hosts events and “healing hours” for her community to talk about their grief.

“We need connection and community in order to process our grief fully,” she says.

Awosan and Eaddy agree that grieving in public can provide validation of our humanity.

“Sharing grief gives people the opportunity to allow themselves to be cared for and to care for others. It allows people to witness how they and others experience and express grief while being human,” Awosan says.

“At the end of the day, I don’t need validation that I’m human,” Eaddy says, “but there is a part of all of us as humans that longs for connection and validation.” She adds, “In isolation we don’t avail ourselves of the healing power that can come from somebody saying, ‘I see you.’ Your person or thing, the experience, whatever the loss is, it matters.”

Public Grief Can Lead to Mobilization

We know we can experience grief due to vicarious trauma and traumatic stress, but we have also seen how collective grief can lead to mobilization. We’ve seen environmental activism as the result of the grief over environmental degradation. We’ve seen the women’s rights movement come as a result of the grief over gender inequality, and global movements for justice following the grief over political or racial injustice.

Research shows that particularly in the Black community, collective grief can shift to grievance and calls for systemic change. We saw this in the form of protest and sit-ins during the civil rights movement, and more recently from 2016 to 2020 through the work of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the murders of Travyon Martin, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and many others.

Eaddy says, “For me, Black Lives Matter publicly said, ‘We are grieving. We are hurting. We are sad, and we’re not going to hurt in the closet.’” She explains that hiding grief has social consequences as well. “If I have to hurt in the closet, it gets to remain hidden from everybody, including those who are causing the pain.”

She adds, “Just by putting it in the world’s face, there was a percentage of humans who decided they would no longer be ignorant to what was happening to fellow humans.”

Currently, we are seeing public grief and grievance play out with protests in response to the innocent lives lost in Palestine and the Congo.

Collective Healing Through Grieving in Public

Just as there is collective grief, there can also be collective healing. Whether it’s through church groups, or sharing stories and experiences to create empathy and unity, or forming support networks and communities, we can find ways to heal together.

Eaddy says, “You need to grieve in public because when we grieve in isolation, it pulls us away from people, and the truth is we are not designed or created to operate in isolation. We are created to be in community.”

If we don’t share our grief, we contribute to the lack of empathy and understanding in society, the perpetuation of systemic injustices and inequalities, and divisions and conflicts within communities. For the sake of personal and collective well-being and empowerment, individuals and society must choose to acknowledge and process grief.

The power of public grieving is its ability to connect us and drive healing and change.

This article originally appeared in Yes! Magazine at https://www.yesmagazine.org/health-happiness/2024/07/02/public-healing-grief.

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