This past week we have witnessed the power and the importance of sharing grief. The number of stories that have been written, remembered and shared in regard to the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination is evidence of the need of all groups to work though and remember losses that they have experienced together. People fifty years ago needed each other to get through that tragic time and we, even now, benefit from remembering together this tragic event that played an important part in our nation’s life together. “Where were you when you heard that JFK had been shot?” or “Tell me a story of how this affected you and your family or friends?” are still asked today, just as they were asked in November, 1963.
All groups, no matter the size, benefit from remembering and honoring the hard times they have endured together. Friends, families, teams, organizations, congregations, communities, and nations work through experiences of collective grief by remembering them and talking about them with one another. This kind of remembering and sharing is not meant to be maudlin or depressing as this kind of remembering plays a significant role in healing and regaining strength. Our healing is enhanced by the shared vulnerability that then softens and opens our hearts.
Collective grief is unique and different from individual grief in that when we grieve a common loss we draw solace and comfort from the fact that we are experiencing the loss together. For example, if the tragedy that strikes is a tornado that touches down in your home town, you will most likely be remembering and talking about that tragic experience with people from your town the rest of your life. If you try to share the experience of the tornado with a friend who lives a thousand miles away, that friend may well be empathic and supportive, but that friend will not truly be able to share any sense of collective grief with you. In fact, if you would visit that friend months or years from now you may find yourself shocked that they only vaguely remember the loss that you experienced and still remember so vividly. The grief would not be etched into your friend’s memory the way it was etched into yours.
The holidays will soon be here and they tend to bring out a wide array of emotions. In addition to great joy and celebration, holidays often contain some element of sadness or grief for they are markers of the significant changes and losses in our lives. When friends and families gather for the holidays, there is quite often a sense of collective grief present in the room, related to the changes and losses that this unique group of people have experienced together.
Perhaps one thing we can learn from the collective remembering and grieving that our nation is engaged in this week around the assassination of President Kennedy is how important it can be for us to do the same. If we are experiencing grief in our gatherings with friends and families, perhaps we can take the risk to remember and share a story about someone we all love who is no longer with us, even if that story makes us sad. Perhaps that story will spark another story and then perhaps others will share stories that make everyone laugh and cry. In doing so, not only will the one who has passed on be honored and remembered, but the loving bonds of those sitting around the table will be deepened and strengthened. Such is the power and importance of collective grief.
This column will return in two weeks as I will be off next Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. May your gatherings be filled with great love and great stories of remembering.