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Why you should address vicarious grief

Pay attention to your feelings. Or they will, sooner or later, show up in some way—as anger, frustration, sadness

People cope in different ways—some choose, for instance, to keep a diary.
People cope in different ways—some choose, for instance, to keep a diary. (Getty images)

A 21-year-old client tells me: “2021 began with so much hope and now it feels like we are in the midst of a calamity. Last week, I learnt that one of our university professors passed away, I had not known or met him and yet I couldn’t stop crying. He was in his early 40s and was supposed to teach us a paper next semester. While my family is safe, hearing about people dying due to covid-19 throughout the country, I feel a sense of loss. I have never lost a loved one in my life to death, yet all of last month it felt like grief.”

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For 17 years I have worked around grief, trauma and relationships but this time it feels like the entire nation is mourning. Like my client, a lot of us are experiencing vicarious grief, for people who lost their life to covid-19 or post-covid complications—and while we didn’t know them, the feeling of loss is real. Grief, like anxiety, is an emotion that can be felt or experienced when we see others going through it.

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Our vicarious grief is a reminder of shared humanity and our deep capacity for compassion towards others. We are all social beings and in moments of sorrow and loss, we realise our stories and life are so deeply interconnected—hence the pain. Just like vicarious trauma, when we hear about the death of a person on news or social media, it evokes grief for people we may not have known well enough or at all. This is followed by mourning and all kinds of questions about how the death could have been prevented. Not just that, we find ourselves struggling to imagine how debilitating the loss would have been for the family members who survived. In these moments, we may find ourselves worrying about the safety of our loved ones and it may trigger memories of losses we haven’t fully dealt with.

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Begin by acknowledging your feeling of loss—in this case, the vicarious grief. The reality about grief is that on most days it can sneak up on us and we can feel consumed by it. Grief can take many forms; it may be sadness for some, anger, and a low frustration threshold for others. It can show up in ways where some people may feel numb, others may withdraw, while yet others may bury themselves in work, alcohol or binges of various kinds. For some people, grief impacts their hope for the future, leaving them cynical and disillusioned about life.

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Begin by giving yourself permission to grieve. If you don’t pay attention to your feelings, sooner or later it may show up in the form of a lingering sadness, an anger outburst or even a reaction that’s inappropriate in terms of intensity. As Angie Corbett-Kuiper, a writer and international speaker, says, “We cannot think our way out of grief, we must feel our way out of grief.” My own grief has taught me that everyone has a personal journey when it comes to processing the loss and we can’t predetermine the pace of healing.

Ask yourself what personal rituals allow for self-soothing. A friend tells me that when she sits to meditate, she says a prayer for everyone who is struggling, and it helps her. I choose to write down my feelings in a diary, giving words to the grief in the hope that it’s easier to process. On most days, it helps; sometimes, the heaviness still lingers.

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Just as we have the capacity to be happy for strangers, witnessing their pain and loss can also impact us. Community support can go a long way in helping us deal with vicarious grief. At the same time, learning to be on our own side and be compassionate as we take time to heal and deal with the pain is crucial, particularly when we are in the midst of a pandemic.

Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.

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