Understanding our grief responses to acts of mass violence

Acts of mass violence such as shootings and terrorism can trigger a range of individual and collective grief emotions, including anger, fear and anxiety. Following a recent spate of violent public incidents in the United States, Mr Christopher Hall, CEO of the Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement, has provided a timely insight into the role of grief, what it looks like, and where people can go to find support. 

According to Mr Hall, one of the first steps towards dealing with grief is understanding what it looks like. “Grief isn’t just someone who is tearful. Grief can manifest in a range of emotions and gestures. People get angry. Or anxious. Or scared. They also do things like write books, petition governments, create art, and post on social media. This kind of grief has a ripple effect through society, and we see this play out in both mainstream and social media circuits after violent events” said Mr Hall. 

He adds that while much of the public conversation following acts of mass violence tends to focus on the topic of ‘trauma’, we are also seeing a series of grief responses play out around the world.

“Sudden and unexpected deaths like this challenge our beliefs about our own safety and produce widespread feelings of anxiety. As grief and bereavement practitioners, we know that those who struggle the most are those who can’t make sense of the loss. And there are a lot of people right now who are struggling to make sense of these events” he said.

Mr Hall adds that it’s also completely normal for people who are not personally involved in situations like these to experience grief.

“It’s absolutely possible for people to feel real and authentic grief for people they don’t know. Grief connects to our own experiences of loss. In situations like this, the public and private become intermingled. We see this sort of thing with the death of public figures, and it’s certainly present in situations like mass shootings” he said.

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are prime sites for these expressions of grief. They provide a sense of community through which we can share thoughts and feelings and be acknowledged by others. As a virtual community of support, social media plays a powerful function in how we experience grief in these situations, especially as we learn about the victims and their families through shared photos, stories and media coverage.

Culturally, we see these events exist in the media for a short while, and then dissipate.  However, the experience of grief is much broader. When people die suddenly, there’s no opportunity to say goodbye and there is an overlap of trauma to compound the loss.

The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement provides a range of grief and bereavement services and resources. Further information can be found at www.grief.org.au