Collective Grief and the Educator
Written By: Tiffany Creager
Name It to Tame It is one of my favorite strategies and recently, I have found myself naming and attempting to tame endlessly with little relief. I’m grateful, scared, angry, sad, hopeful, lonely, joyful, and so on and so forth. Despite my greatest efforts, I am more dysregulated than usual and I am exhausted.
As I head into my 5th week of a stay-at-home order, I have done quite a bit of research in an attempt to give language to the rollercoaster of emotions I have witnessed in others and have experienced firsthand. It was when I was listening to a podcast with Dr. Brene Brown and David Kessler that I had several AHA! moments.
This is grief. It is not just personal grief or secondary grief but collective grief. We are grieving, we are comparing suffering and at times we are judging one another’s grief. Oof! That’s a lot. But as I dug into those ideas, I felt healing.
So, what does that mean for an educator who is navigating collective grief for themselves, supporting family members, supporting students and families all while learning, teaching and modeling skills to cope? It means it’s pretty heavy. It also means we can give it language and we can make a plan.
Together we will explore the concepts of collective grief, comparative suffering and the dangers of judging grief. We will identify strategies for supporting ourselves, our staff, our students and our families.
Collective Grief, Comparative Suffering and Judgement
When asked what we are experiencing during this global pandemic, David Kessler, a world-renowned grief expert, said, “we are all dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew. The world we knew is now gone forever.” That quote stopped me in my tracks. It hurt. It resonated. And then it healed.
Collectively, we are grieving the loss of normal, the loss of routine, the loss of gathering together, the loss of student and teacher hugs, the loss of income, the loss of vacations, the loss of physical connection, and of course, the loss of life. It is no wonder this feels so hard.
As we struggle to find our footing in this new normal while missing the old, we’re also witnessing comparative suffering. This simply means that we are ranking suffering whether it’s ours or others and doling out or withholding compassion and empathy based on those rankings. Sure the loss of a vacation might not feel like as big of a loss as the neighbor’s loss of income, but loss is loss and empathy is infinite.
Yes, we know generations before this have missed out on school events when they were sent to war. That does not make the loss of this year’s senior events any less real. It only shames them for feeling it. David Kessler, who has lived through the death of his mother and his son reminds us, “the worst loss is always yours.” Don’t compare. Feel your grief without apology and support others as they do the same. We are nothing if we aren’t in this together.
Finally, it is important to acknowledge that we all grieve differently. Unintentionally, through our own lens of suffering, we may find ourselves judging others’ responses or reactions right now. If you feel that (I know I have), simply notice it and look inward. What is this telling ME? When we act in judgment, we risk relationships, we risk (even more) isolation and we hurt ourselves and others. We get through all of this by caring for ourselves and for one another, by extending grace and by bearing witness to our individual and collective journeys.
Name It, Feel It, Regulate and Connect
Okay, so we’re grieving, our families and students are grieving, now what?! It turns out the Name It Tame It strategy can work if and when we’re able to more accurately name the feeling. Phew! My struggle was naming it everything but grief!
When we are able to see our emotions as grief, we can connect to the experience of grief. Whether it’s denial (this is an overreaction), anger (so angry we can’t go back to school or feeling angry seeing people out and about), bargaining (okay 2 weeks inside and then we’ll be normal again), depression (this will never end), or acceptance (these are the rules, here’s how I proceed), understanding that it is a part of a nonlinear process helps to normalize it.
It also helps us get through it. You know the sayings, “If we don’t feel it, we can’t heal it.” or “the best way out is through.” Naming it and feeling it helps us heal, it helps us get through.
As we name and feel the feelings we can acknowledge that our brains are in need of regulation. Thankfully, we know how to do that. It is important to note that during times of crisis, the stress hormones may be flooding more than normal meaning we need to regulate more often.
As a result, we can build breath and movement into our days while also noticing if there is a pattern to our stress response. I, for example, noticed an almost panicky feeling the first few weeks right around 2:00. Because my brain is currently stressed, it took me a full two weeks to put it together – oops! But once I did, I set an alarm on my phone and added a 1:30 meditation. That has been helpful!
Finally, we know our brains are wired for connection. That has proven to be difficult as we adhere to the stay-at-home order, leading to even more stress and grief; but, don’t give up. There are creative ways to meet that very important need as outlined below.
Strategies for Educators, Students and Families
Each of these can be utilized as an individual, as a staff exercise or as a student assignment. Have fun with it. Be kind, be flexible and extend grace when you can.
The initial stress response we experience is to protect us and keep us safe. Our brain kicks into action and we fight or flee. However, when the perceived threat is ongoing, the stress response becomes detrimental. Deep belly breaths bring us back to a place where we are better equipped to think logically, empathize and regulate.
Breathe in through your nose deep into your belly and breathe out through your mouth. Start each day, each class, each meeting with a breath. The Calm app has provided these free resources for all ages. It is a great place to start working on your breath strategies with resources specifically designed for the collective grief we are currently experiencing!
Putting a pen to paper and writing your feelings down takes the power away from the feeling and empowers you! Try to write something every day. They may not all be insightful, publishable works of art – that’s okay! (Confession – my day 21 journal entry, simply reads: #overit.)
Just write. If freewriting is uncomfortable, try giving prompts such as, “the thing I miss most right now…” or “the unexpected joy in being home is…” You might also start with a strategy called emotion journaling. Simply jot down facts, then add your physical sensations, followed by your thoughts, and identify your feelings from there.
3. Mindfulness exercises
Part of the collective grief we are experiencing may be anticipatory grief. This simply means we may be consciously or unconsciously carrying the stress of waiting for more loss to come. Mindfulness strategies bring us to the present. Try the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique by simply taking a big deep breath and then saying aloud 5 things you see, then noticing and saying 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell and 1 thing you taste. End with one more big breath. I also like to turn to the Mindful in Minutes podcast for my daily mindful moments!
4. Acknowledge and confront automated negative thoughts
There are times in which our brain tells us untruths such as: “I’m not good enough, no one likes me, I’m failing at everything I do.” We don’t have to believe every thought we have. We can teach ourselves and our students to challenge those automated negative thoughts by writing them down and asking ourselves if they’re really true or if we’re making assumptions or jumping to conclusions. A great book to help kids with this concept is Captain Snout and the Super Power Questions by Dr. Daniel Amen.
Draw your feelings. Draw your breath. Give your students a body outline and ask them to identify what and where they are feeling sensations that may be difficult to understand – tension in the neck, upset stomach, heavy heart, etc. For those uncomfortable or unable to journal, suggest a daily sketchbook!
Write a song or find a theme song for the week that speaks to your heart. Ask your students to create a soundtrack for their experience during this time. Can we represent the range of emotions on that soundtrack? What speaks to our frustration? Our sadness? Our hope? Our joy?
7. Shake and dance
Dr. James Gordon, the founder of The Center of Mind and Body Medicine, is known for his life-changing therapeutic work in response to traumatic events such as wars, school shootings and natural disasters. One of the strategies he uses with the impacted populations is to shake and dance.
He explains it as a strategy to release us from the freeze response that so many of us may find ourselves in during or after a traumatic event. Simply shake from your feet to your knees, arms and all the way up your body for 5 minutes or so. Notice how you feel. Then turn on some uplifting music and dance.
Note the feelings in your mind and body. It is, perhaps, a little awkward, but it is powerful! And we’re all stuck at home right now so go ahead – no one is watching!
Physical activity releases endorphins and can improve your mood and lower stress. Join or create an accountability group, do a zoom group workout, or simply go for a walk and get some fresh air and vitamin D!! Do yoga to connect your mind and body and integrate breath and mindfulness. Try this or this for kids and teen yoga!
9. Get creative with FaceTime
Play games with your friends such as Pictionary, Heads Up, Yahtzee or Uno! Virtually cook together, have a tea (or pick your beverage) party, sit outside and have coffee while FaceTiming. Encourage your kids to do the same. Teachers might consider assigning fun group work that allows students to connect and laugh. If you’re home with family, commit to one meal a day together, tech-free.
10. Spread Kindness
Random acts of kindness have been shown to regulate mood, increase “happy hormones” in the brain, and benefit the giver and the receiver! Consider porch drop-off surprises, picking up groceries for at-risk friends, having neighborhood window scavenger hunts, donating to a local business, supporting those on the frontline through donations, cheers, or uplifting notes. Have fun with it. We could all use some extra kindness right now!
In the end, I think it’s important to acknowledge what we’re experiencing, to be aware of our hurt, be proactive in our own and others’ healing, and to give ourselves permission to work through it all at our own pace. We can extend that same simple grace to our coworkers, family members, and students.
When our new normal emerges, likely after a few more transitions, we’ll be grateful we did the work and supported our students in being as mentally well as we are all able. We’ll get through it together, hang in there, you’re doing an amazing job.
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