How to process grief and sadness after the Capitol attack

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Rioters stand on the U.S. Capitol building to protest the official election of President-elect Joe Biden on Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington DC. Photo by Thomas P. Costello-USA TODAY.

The peaceful transfer of power from one party to another is one of the key principles of our democracy and a society governed by laws. This week that unbroken tradition appeared to hang in the balance; violence and mayhem unfolded at the US Capitol and the hallowed halls of Congress were laid to siege by an unruly mob.  Americans, and indeed the world, watched in disbelief — bearing witness to a violation that left many angry, saddened, and fearful. How do we make sense of what has happened without normalizing what we have seen?

To address our collective disarray, KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with author and world renowned expert on grief and loss David Kessler and Tania Israel, psychologist and author of “Beyond Your Bubble: How to Connect Across the Political Divide.” 

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: How do we begin to make sense of just what we're feeling right now as a society and as a country? 

David Kessler: “We witnessed the breakdown of society yesterday. We always think about grief surrounding death and we saw the death of some of the things we hold so dear, in our society and yesterday there was a breakdown and it was traumatic to watch and lives were lost. 

We often underestimate that if it's not happening personally to me, in my home, it's not really happening. But yesterday was traumatic for this country. For us all watching, it was vicarious trauma. That's why we're all heavy in the days after and disappointed in what happened. 

In grief, we talk about grief as the breaking of the assumptive world. We have an assumptive world in which we have peaceful transitions. We can work anything out, we can disagree but it doesn't make you my enemy. And all that broke down for us yesterday.”

Tanyia Israel, as someone who has studied how groups managed to get along what was your experience?

Tania Israel: “I agree that there was certainly a lot of trauma and that people are experiencing a lot of emotions but it was not universal, and it was not like everybody was experiencing this the same way. I had somebody call me yesterday who said, ‘Oh, my God, I'm terrified, this is really disturbing, aren't you terrified?’ but I said that was not what I was feeling. 

I felt like this wasn't a big surprise that this happened. This seemed like an expected outcome based on all of the buildup. So I was having a different emotional reaction. One of the things that I realized is that often in these moments where something critical is happening, we want to connect with people who are having similar reactions, we want to feel supported, and we want to feel like we're in this with somebody else. 

A lot of people experienced that on social media; they're tapping into people who are having similar responses and I think that that's important. I think that people need that support to process what's going on. In a way to find somebody who can say, ‘yes, I relate, I'm feeling the same thing.’”

Kessler: “I always say that grief must be witnessed. We want what we're feeling witnessed, in the same way that Tanya's friend asked her ‘aren't you terrified?’ She wanted to know that someone else is feeling what she was feeling. In these moments, we want to know when we're connecting with others, ‘is my take real? Should I be worried? How worried should I be?’” 

There are radically different visions of what happened; some saw these people as patriots, some saw them as thugs. How do we begin talking about that?

Israel: “One of the things I always recommend is being curious, try to find out more about what's behind what somebody says. So if somebody says, ‘I think they were patriots’  try saying ‘wow, that's really different from the way I see it. I'm interested to know more about where you're coming from.’ That's not the natural reaction that we would have, especially if we're feeling traumatized, so probably we need to have these conversations before, if we're not in a place to do that right now. But reach out and be interested in. I've been having conversations with people about Mitch McConnell upholding the election results; is it a breath of fresh air and should we celebrate it or was it too little too late? Those are more subtle differences, but we can still rub up against each other in those ways, especially when we're feeling really emotionally charged about something.”

“There were some places where people really came together, in terms of saying ‘this is outrageous, this is wrong, this should not happen.’  I think where we have common ground and that's really hopeful in terms of giving us a place to work from, is that there's nuance within that. So you might say, certain things should have happened or should not have happened — there will be disagreement about some of these points but if there are things that we can all agree on, we're still going to have to find ways of talking to each other.” 

Kessler: “Look at what we're doing that isn't working. Treating a difference of opinion as my enemy. Making sure I get rid of all my Facebook friends that don't agree with me, is a problem. Getting mad at a friend on Facebook, who's got a different comment, instead of calling them up and saying ‘let's have coffee on Zoom right now and chat about this.’ Beginning a dialogue; the more we know one another and talk about things, it becomes harder to hate one another.”

Israel: “Absolutely, I couldn't agree more, the only useful comment that we can make on somebody's social media when we disagree, is “I’m interested to hear more about where you're coming from, can we find a time to talk?”

David as a grief expert, how do we find meaning in this moment? 

Kessler: “One of the things that we get confused about when people hear finding meaning, they think it means to find meaning in the tragedy; when your loved one dies of cancer, there's no meaning in that or someone's murdered, there's no meaning in that, there's no meaning in George Floyd's death. There's meaning in what we do after. There's meaning in how we remember, how we honor, what the legacy is. What will be the legacy of January 6th? Will it be a legacy of learning and change? Or is it the beginning of a series of horrible events that keep repeating themselves? We have control over that so we can find this meaning. Currently we're in a pandemic, I found meaning in that we have found ways to control things, to wear masks, to take care of our neighbors, to communicate better — there's meaning all around us that's for the taking, if we're just open to it.”

Credits

Guests:

Producer:

Andrea Brody