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Signs of Humanity: What is Collective Grief?

Last Updated on December 12, 2023 by It’s Complicated

A Short Introduction to Grief

All of us experience grief at times. Grief is a universal human experience often overlooked due to the complexity of emotions it brings. We frequently attempt to escape or suppress overwhelming feelings in pursuit of happiness, however, this collective pursuit of happiness often leaves us unfulfilled. It’s essential to embrace grief as an integral part of our humanity. Even animals grieve when they lose a dear friend, person, or animal close to them. So why do we neglect something so deeply ingrained in our souls?

In this article, we’ll explore both collective grief and individual grief, shedding light on the hidden facets of psychology. Understanding and addressing these aspects is crucial because what we overlook today shapes our future lives. I come from a place close to some of the world’s most conflicted regions, Türkiye. Having lived here and later in the UK for four years of education, I’ve come to realize that we lose certain aspects of our identity while forming new ones, yet we remain authentic. Loss permeates every corner of our lives. We can even observe it in nature — in the season of autumn, with its falling leaves, is a reminder that falling is essential for growth. It also makes us suffer as we edge closer to the inevitability of death. However, death imparts wisdom, urging us to grow stronger, prioritize health, engage in sports, and socialize. All these efforts stem from our awareness of mortality

What is the Difference Between Bereavement, Grief, and Mourning?

When we discuss grieving as a universal phenomenon, it refers to a person’s response to the death of someone they loved. One contemporary psychological definition states, “bereavement refers to the loss of a loved one by death, and grief refers to the distress resulting from bereavement” (Genevro, Marshall, Miller, & Center for the Advancement of Health 2004). Mourning is another closely related term often used interchangeably with grief. While some researchers distinguish between grief as “a reaction to loss” (DeSpelder & Strickland, 2005, p. 268), and mourning as “the process by which a bereaved person integrates the loss into his or her ongoing life” (DeSpelder & Strickland, 2005, p. 269), the terms we use here encompass the emotional response to the loss of a loved one, which can encompass sadness, longing, sorrow, despair, and anguish (Granek, 2010). Therefore, “grief” represents the emotion, while “grieving” signifies the reaction to the loss of someone we love. Understanding these distinctions is essential for comprehending the entire grieving experience. It’s also important to note that there is no universally correct way or timeline for grieving, as it is culturally sensitive and varies individually. Read this article here to explore a therapist’s perspective on how long grief lasts.

What is Anticipatory Grief?

In ‘On Grief and Grieving’, Kübler-Ross and Kessler wrote that “anticipatory grief is generally more silent than grief after a loss. We are often not as verbal. It’s a grief we keep to ourselves. We want little active intervention. There is little or no need for words; it is much more a feeling that can be comforted by the touch of a hand or silently sitting together. Most of the time in grief, we are focused on the loss in the past, but in anticipatory grief, we occupy ourselves with the loss ahead.”

We all acknowledge that we will eventually face our own mortality, yet it remains a daunting reality. Particularly when it concerns people we deeply cherish, the anticipation of their death can be challenging to fathom. Anticipatory grief, often more potent than grief itself, often goes unnoticed. While we tend to associate it with the process our loved ones undergo as they approach death, it actually marks the beginning of the grieving process for those who will survive the loss. The next time you experience anticipatory grief, recognize that acknowledging death can enhance your resilience.

Stages of Grief

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler have played a pivotal role in developing the field of grief psychology. In their book, ‘On Grief & Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss,’ they explain the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We will next delve into each stage, understanding that they are not rigidly confined emotions but rather responses to loss that vary from person to person.

1. Denial

Denial of grief has often been misconstrued over the years. It doesn’t necessarily imply ignorance of the fact that a significant person in your life has passed away. Instead, it represents the profound struggle to accept that you will never see that person again, and they will never return home. It places an immense burden on one’s psyche (soul). The first stage helps us survive the loss. During this stage, the world appears meaningless and overwhelming, and life seems to make no sense. We become numb. Denial and shock serve as coping mechanisms, allowing us to endure. There is a grace in denial; it is nature’s way of protecting us from overwhelming grief (Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2004).

2. Anger

The stage of anger manifests itself in various ways. You may feel anger toward your loved one for not taking better care of themselves or toward yourself for not doing more to help them. Anger is not necessarily reasonable or justified, and it doesn’t have to follow a logical pattern. You might be angry because you didn’t foresee the loss or because nothing could prevent it once you did. You may direct anger at doctors for not saving your loved one or at the injustice of bad things happening to someone so dear to you. Anger is a potent emotion, and allowing yourself to feel it is crucial for healing. Don’t shy away from your anger, and don’t let anyone diminish it.

“The more anger you allow, the more feelings you will find underneath. Anger is the most immediate emotion, but you will find other feelings hidden as you deal with it. Mostly, you will find the pain of loss. The power of your anger may overwhelm you because, for some, it may be in proportion to the lost love it represents. It may seem that if you go into the pain, you will never come out of it, or it will never end. You will come out the other end. The anger will subside, and the feelings of loss will change form again.” (Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2004, ‘On Grief and Grieving’)”

Kübler-Ross & Kessler, 2004 ‘‘On Grief and Grieving’’

3. Bargaining

Guilt is often bargaining’s best companion. “If only I could turn back time” is a sentiment you might be familiar with in yourself or from others who are in the process of grieving. The “if only” statements lead us to blame ourselves for what we believe we could have done differently. We may even attempt to bargain with the pain itself, doing anything to avoid feeling the loss. We remain fixated on the past, attempting to negotiate our way out of the anguish. In some cases, bargaining can help our minds transition from one state of loss to another, serving as a temporary stopover that allows our psyche time to adapt. It enables us to believe we can restore order to the chaos that has engulfed us. Bargaining evolves over time; initially, we may bargain for our loved ones to be saved, and later, we may even bargain to take their place. As we progress through the bargaining process, our minds revisit past events while exploring “what if” and “if only” scenarios.”

4. Depression

The mind eventually acknowledges the irrevocable reality of our loved one’s absence, often leading to a depressive stage. This stage may feel endless, but it’s essential to understand that this depression is not indicative of mental illness; rather, it is a natural response to an overwhelming sense of loss. 

Depression following in response to grieving can sometimes feel like an abnormal situation that needs fixing, or something to snap out of. This is often worsened by the reaction to sorrow that others can have, well intentioned they may be. This urge to uplift others typically stems from one’s own needs and an inability to tolerate prolonged sadness. Mourning individuals should be allowed to experience their sorrow, and they appreciate the presence of those who can sit with them without attempting to remedy their sadness. This stage ultimately helps us heal and appreciate the preciousness of life. Depression, contrary to what the literature sometimes suggests, is not solely a negative experience.

4. Acceptance

Acceptance is misconstrued as a state of being fine with what has occurred. This is not the case. Most people never feel entirely okay or at peace with the loss of a loved one. Acceptance involves acknowledging that our loved one is physically gone and understanding that this new reality is permanent. We may never like or make peace with this reality, but eventually, we come to accept it. We learn to live with it; it becomes the new norm. This is where our final healing and adjustment find a solid footing, even though healing may seem unattainable at times. Healing involves remembering, reminiscing, and reorganizing. We may make peace with a higher power or acknowledge the logical reasons for our loss, even if we never fully comprehend them. As survivors, we eventually grasp that it was our loved one’s time to depart. Despite the fact it was likely too soon for us and perhaps too soon for them, our life journey continues.

What is Collective Grief?

Collective grief can catch us off guard. It arises unexpectedly, whether through earthquakes, terrorist attacks, wars, or natural disasters, shattering our perception of a safe world. We yearn for a secure environment but question whether it’s an ideal or a reality. Survivors of such events grieve on multiple levels—their loved ones are gone, their homes and neighbourhoods are disrupted, and their sense of security is violated. Often, disasters draw the global community’s attention, making witnesses of us all. Survivors find themselves dealing with various bureaucratic levels: local, state, and federal disaster recovery agencies. Worldwide news media broadcast these tragedies for everyone to witness. Grief becomes a public affair, evoking complex emotions. It’s no longer just our personal grief; it becomes a collective outcry against inequality, a call for peace, and more. We gain support, but disasters challenge our perception of a safe world. However, it is still possible to heal from such trauma. 

Kübler-Ross and Kessler (2004) use the metaphor of a tree to illustrate this process. A felled tree has endured physical trauma, and one might assume its life has ended. Yet, slowly and quietly, a small sprout of life emerges. Life is not over as long as there is hope. In today’s world, anxiety often arises from global politics and the unsettling nature of wars and terrorism. Yet, we continue to strive for peace and humanity, never losing hope in times of crisis. The world may no longer feel safe, but we can actively work to change our world, healing our psyche and mending our wounded parts.

ACT Techniques for Grief: The Grief Matrix or Grieftrix

The traditional ACT [Acceptance and Commitment Therapy] model is often represented as a process-based therapy involving the manipulation of six core processes represented commonly in an interconnected hexagon (popularly referred to as the “Hexaflex”.)

“Copyright Steven C. Hayes. Used by permission”
Figure 1: The traditional Hexaflex Model – Steven C. Hayes

Grief is inherently complex, stemming from the relationships between two or more individuals. While you may observe patterns and commonalities in your work with grieving individuals and families, it’s essential to understand that each person’s grief is unique.  It’s okay for grief to be different! Parents grieving their teenager’s death by suicide differ from a family grieving a death by chronic illness. As much as families value their experience of grief being validated as natural by others, there can also be an element of “sacred ownership” over their grief, which no other person on earth can understand.

metin, ekran görüntüsü, yazı tipi, çizgi içeren bir resim

Açıklama otomatik olarak oluşturuldu
Figure 2: The ACT Matrix, Polk, and his colleagues (2016)

Grief can lead to the development of narrow and inflexible behaviour patterns. Following a death, it’s normal to experience a change in behaviour, but some individuals become stuck in a cycle of avoidance and disconnection from the present moment, unable to engage in valued actions. Much of the work related to grief is naturally consistent with ACT principles, as the primary understanding of grief is that while the emotional experience evolves over time, it never truly disappears. Furthermore, the ultimate goal in grieving is acceptance. Strong and flexible engagement with the present moment is essential, as well as fostering a flexible sense of self, connection to values, committed action, and diffusion from rigid and unworkable thought patterns.

Figure 3: The Grieftrix by Jacob Martinez is a formulation of the standard ACT Matrix

Despite the variations in models, theories, and interventions, death remains an undeniable reality.  Notice the preciousness of your existence. You are here for a reason to share the enormous gift you can offer to bring peace and serenity to the world. I would like to conclude with a poem by a well-known author, Jorge Luis Borges.


If I could live my life again

I would make more mistakes. 

I would try not to be so perfect.  

I would relax more, 

I would be sillier than I have been. 

In fact, I would only take a few things seriously. 

I would live less healthily.   

I would take more risks,

I would travel more,

I would contemplate more sunsets,

I would climb more mountains, 

I would swim in more rivers. 

I was one of those sensible people who lived intensely and deeply each moment of my life 

and, of course, I had some happy moments

But if I could live my life again 

I would try to have more good moments. 

Because, in case you didn’t know, life is made up of moments 

don’t forget the current one. 

If I could live my life again,

I would walk around barefoot from the beginning of spring till the end of autumn.

I would play more often with children, if only I had my whole life ahead of me.

But, as you have noticed, I am 85 and I know I am dying.  

Jorge Luis Borges


DeSpelder, Lynne Ann, ve Albert Lee Strickland. The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying. Eleventh edition. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2020.

Granek, Leeat. “Grief as Pathology: The Evolution of Grief Theory in Psychology from Freud to the Present.” History of Psychology 13, sy 1 (Şubat 2010): 46-73.

Kubler-Ross, D., & Kessler, E. (2014). On grief and grieving. Simon & Schuster.

Polk, K. L., Schoendorff, B., Webster, M., & Olaz, F. O. (2016). The essential guide to the ACT matrix: A step-by-step approach to Using the ACT matrix model in clinical practice. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Genevro, J. L., Marshall, T., Miller, T., & Center for the Advancement of Health (2004). Report on bereavement and grief research. Death studies, 28(6), 491–575.

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