Written by Alex Evans, Casper ter Kuile and Ivor Williams
Covid-19 is the first true cataclysm most of us have ever seen. It’s a crisis with multiple layers. A pandemic that may ultimately lead to a final death toll in the millions. An economic catastrophe, with the “Great Lockdown” triggering by far the biggest crisis since the Great Depression. And a social and cultural shock with impacts that we are only just beginning to understand.
Most of all, though, Covid-19 is a crisis of the mind: one that has been called “the world’s biggest psychological experiment”. The nature of the crisis goes right to the core of how we live as social beings — and also how we die.
This essay is intended as a meditation on collective grieving. We argue that in conditions of such widespread loss as the ones we now face, it’s essential that we grieve well — and that this means doing so collectively, not just on our own. But we also note that our society often struggles with grief. Instead we often regard death as a taboo and grief as something embarrassing, to be hidden away or processed as quickly as possible.
Covid-19 forces us to look our unease with death squarely in the face. Suddenly, millions of us find ourselves grieving not just the passing of people we love who have died alone, but the deaths of millions of people worldwide as well as the passing of a way of life as we realise how many things will not go “back to normal” after the outbreak has ended.
For all that we may feel our situation to be unprecedented, though, humans have faced similar cataclysms many times before. Our ancestors knew all about the challenges we now face, and they have plenty to tell us.
The power of shared stories of loss and hope
In particular, they knew that during cataclysmic crises, the shared stories we use to make sense of the world — myths — become especially important.
Such stories may explain why the disaster has happened — in the process, often telling us truths about ourselves that we might prefer not to face — and tell us how we can move forward. And because the stories we reach for to understand what is happening also affect how we behave, we may well find that our myths often create reality as much as they describe it.
But our ability to navigate the cataclysm that faces us today is complicated by the fact that we have lost many of the old stories and rituals that used to help us make sense of death and grief. This creates profound dangers, not just of deeper hurt, but also of fragmentation, polarisation, culture wars, and even violence.
So as well as emphasising why we need to grieve collectively, this essay is also about how we do so, drawing in particular on how our forebears used deep shared stories and rituals to make sense of cataclysms — and how we can draw on them again today.
In particular, we look at three kinds of myths that have helped our ancestors to make sense of crisis and that we now find bubbling up once more in numerous works of popular fiction and film:
- Apocalypse myths — which, rather than being taken literally as descriptions of the end of the world, need to be understood as depicting an unveiling of things as they really are;
- Restoration myths — which tell of how a wound or rupture in the world is healed and things are made whole again; and
- Emergence myths — which tell of how the death of the old also leads to the birth of the new, or of how we grow up as a species.
Eight lessons about grief
Using these three sets of myths as inspiration, we set out eight key lessons that can help us to navigate this moment of cataclysm and catharsis.
- Embrace grief. We must move further into grief rather than seeking to avoid it, for if we turn away from it then we increase our pain and fear.
- This will get worse before it gets better. After disasters, an initial “honeymoon” stage of solidarity and hope is often followed by a “disillusionment” stage of exhaustion, stress, and feelings of abandonment. We may well encounter the same.
- There is more collective grief to come. With climate breakdown and mass extinction still gathering pace, Covid-19 is the start of a much deeper process of grief that will unfold over years to come.
- Grief is not an equaliser. Covid-19 is already creating powerful new forms of inequality, and grief and bereavement are no less prone to the effects of social injustice than anything else.
- We need to grieve together. Grieving for loss is by definition a relational experience, and in most other societies grieving and mourning are far more shared experiences than they are for us in the West.
- Learn from how our ancestors grieved. Every culture has its own rich and deep history of ritual for loss — and ours is like a treasure house waiting to be rediscovered.
- Invent new rituals and practices to deal with collective loss. While myths cannot be designed from scratch, rituals and other communal grieving practices definitely can.
- Remember that loss is part of the natural cycle. If we are able to understand loss as a form of renewal, we can begin to understand and appreciate life as a single natural process, ever in flux, in motion.
Practices to help us come to terms with grief
Finally, we offer five practices for grieving well, each of which can be explored individually or in groups.
- Writing a Grief Letter or Grief List. Making an inventory of what we are grieving can be enormously helpful when we feel overwhelmed — either in personal writing or in collective online journaling.
- Making a Grief Altar or Memorial Corner. Creating a special place in the house or online to make space for grief — photos of places we cannot go, tickets unused, photos of people we loved who have passed — can help us to say goodbye.
- A Gratitude Walk. Physical movement can unlock things in us that thinking alone cannot. Going for walks, alone or with a loved one (beside us or on the phone) while focusing on things we are thankful for can be a powerful practice for dealing with loss.
- Telling Stories. When someone we love has died, it helps to listen to, and tell, stories about them, just as we do at a wake — and we can find deep comfort in spaces to remember specific losses in our lives, either with one other person, or in online groups.
- Listening to Music that Helps us Feel. Music can open a pathway to our emotions in a way that words sometimes cannot, and we can open ourselves up to grief through listening to sad or elegiac music either alone or with others.
Even as we wait impatiently for things to “return to normal”, we know at some level that they will not. The cataclysm through which we are living — not just the virus, but breakdowns in the cycles of our economies, climate, and ecosystems too — is still just in its early stages.
Although grief is painful, we must recognise the importance of honouring it, both individually and collectively, and of allowing it to unfold in its own time rather than holding it to a timetable. Seeking to avoid it only makes things worse.
As our ancestors before us have found, grief also has gifts to offer us, hard as it may be to make them out when we are in the thick of its throes. Our ability to grieve well and discern these gifts is helped enormously when we are able to draw on shared myths, rituals and practices that assist us in making sense of life even as we grapple with loss and despair.
Read the full report (as PDF) on the Collective Psychology Project website.
The Collective Psychology Project is a collaborative inquiry into how psychology and politics can be brought together in new, creative ways that help us to become a Larger Us instead of a Them-and-Us. The Project’s launch report A Larger Us is available here. In addition to working on collective grief, the Project is currently working on mental health resources to support people during Covid-19; on Larger Us campaigning with a range of NGOs and movements; and on prototyping small collective self-help groups that work on both our states of mind and the state of the world.
About the authors
Ivor Williams is a designer, developing new ways of thinking about and experiencing dying, death and loss in the 21st century. He leads the End-of-Life Care group at the Helix Centre and Institute of Global Health Innovation within Imperial College London. He is a visiting lecturer at Imperial College London, and was visiting professor of Information Design at the University of Venice from 2014–2016. In 2018, he was named a New Radical by innovation foundation Nesta for “pioneering a human-centric approach to the experience of dying, bereavement and grief”
Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project and cofounder of the Centre for the Long Crisis. He is a Senior Fellow at New York University, and the author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017), a book about the power of deep shared stories to unlock social and political change. He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, and climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office.
Casper ter Kuile is the co-founder of Sacred Design Lab, a research and design consultancy working to create a culture of belonging and becoming, and is a Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School. He’s the author of The Power of Ritual (HarperCollins, 2020), which demonstrates how everyday habits can become soulful practices that create meaning, connection and joy. Casper co-hosts the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and previously co-founded activist training organization Campaign Bootcamp and the UK Youth Climate Coalition.