This Too Shall Pass: Mourning Collective Loss in the Age of COVID-19

by , , | May 4, 2020

Read the report: This Too Shall Pass: Mourning Collective Loss in the Age of COVID-19

Beyond its more immediately obvious effects – on human lives, economies, and societal and cultural norms – COVID-19 is beginning to reveal itself as a crisis of the mind.

With an estimated 2.6 billion people currently living under lockdown, the World Economic Forum has termed the COVID-19 pandemic “the world’s biggest psychological experiment“, and we’re already getting a good idea of the results.

The nature of the crisis goes right to the core of how we live – and die – as social beings, and forces us to look our unease with death squarely in the face. We are experiencing widespread loss, and this inevitably leads to the need to grieve. As such, we recognise that grieving well and collectively will be essential.

This essay is a meditation on that collective grief – for the passing of people we love who have died alone, of millions of others worldwide, and of a way of life that we once deemed normal, and now is unlikely to ever return.

But for all that we feel our situation to be unprecedented, we as humans have faced cataclysms like this many times before. To make sense of cataclysmic crises, we need to look to our ancestors. In particular, we must look to myths, the shared stories that helped them to understand and confront past disasters, which continue to surface in popular fiction and film today.

In our essay, we divide these into three categories – apocalypse myths, restoration myths, and emergence myths – and use them as inspiration for eight key lessons, which can help us navigate this moment of cataclysm and catharsis. Finally, we offer five practices for grieving well, to be explored individually or in groups.

We write all of this with the implicit acknowledgement that our society often struggles with grief, that it can be seen as something to be hidden away or processed rapidly and in secret. We know that grief is painful, but the importance of allowing it to unfold, of honouring it both as individuals and collectively, cannot be understated.

As our ancestors before us have found, grief also has gifts to offer us. When in its throes, these can be difficult to discern. But when we are able to draw on shared stories, rituals and practices, our ability to see them for what they are, to make sense of life while also grappling with loss and despair, is helped enormously.

About The Collective Psychology Project:
The Collective Psychology Project is a collaborative inquiry into how psychology and politics can be brought together in new, creative ways that help us to become a Larger Us instead of a Them-and-Us. In addition to working on collective grief, the Project is currently working on mental health resources to support people during COVID-19; on Larger Us campaigning with a range of NGOs and movements; and on prototyping small collective self-help groups that work on both our states of mind and the state of the world.


  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

  • Casper ter Kuile is the co-founder of Sacred Design Lab, a research and design consultancy working to create a culture of belonging and becoming, and is a Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School. He’s the author of The Power of Ritual (HarperCollins, 2020), which demonstrates how everyday habits can become soulful practices that create meaning, connection and joy. Casper co-hosts the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and previously co-founded activist training organisation Campaign Bootcamp and the UK Youth Climate Coalition.

  • Ivor Williams is a designer, developing new ways of thinking about and experiencing dying, death and loss in the 21st century. He leads the End-of-Life Care group at the Institute of Global Health Innovation within Imperial College London. He is a visiting lecturer at Imperial College London, and was visiting professor of Information Design at the University of Venice from 2014–2016. In 2018, he was named a New Radical by innovation foundation Nesta for “pioneering a human-centric approach to the experience of dying, bereavement and grief”.

More from Global Dashboard

A Blueprint for Black Lives Matter in the Development Sector

A Blueprint for Black Lives Matter in the Development Sector

Over the past few weeks – in the wake of COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd – we have seen development, aid, and humanitarian institutions try to respond more effectively to racism. Racism is rooted in a combination of prejudice and power, and action to combat...