Moving forward with grief: reflections on loss and healing
Last month, a devastating event struck No. 34 Middle School in Qiqihar City, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province, leaving its community in disbelief and sorrow. The roof of the school gymnasium, a place of youthful laughter and camaraderie, collapsed, claiming the lives of 10 talented students and their caring coach.
Tears flowed as locals mourned, and in halls once filled with laughter there lingered an overwhelming sense of emptiness. News spread like wildfire, shattering hearts near and far. And a weight of grief mounted that felt too heavy to comprehend.
In a hard to read social media post on Douyin, one survivor said: “All of my best friends are gone.” The comment was accompanied by a group picture of the team and attracted more than 183,000 replies from people offering condolences. The hashtag #AllOfMyBestFriendsAreGone became one of the top trending topics on Weibo.
Suffering and social outpouring aside, something struck me about Qiqihar and the message that summoned the sympathy of so many. When a life is stolen, something beyond a person’s physicality is taken too. What is that?
The term that’s been rattling around in my head is “unquantifiable loss.” Usually, this refers to any reduction in value of a resource that can’t be precisely measured within a realistic period. But that’s not what I’m talking about. This unquantifiable loss goes beyond the obvious and measurable impact of death. It delves into the deep and unpredictable ways events affect individuals, communities and even the course of history. It’s not just about the immediate grief; it’s about relationships that will never form, the potential contributions that will never happen, and the ways in which those who died could have shaped the future. It’s the scientist who might have made groundbreaking discoveries or the peacemaker who may have resolved conflict.
Hannah Arendt, a prominent philosopher of the 20th century, delved into the profound complexities of historical events and their far-reaching impact on humanity. In her work, she highlighted the significance of understanding how tragedies extend beyond numbers. There’s lost potential, unformed relationships, unspoken words and the ripple effect of a person’s absence on their immediate family and friends. Then there are altered futures and the end of bloodlines. The list of potential consequences is unknowable. And it matters.
Unquantifiable loss matters because it shows how deeply tragedy affects us. It passes pain and sadness, reaching into unknown possibilities. Understanding this helps us see the long-lasting impact on individuals, communities and society. When we understand unquantifiable loss, we can become more empathetic. When we see that every life is valuable, we feel compassionately toward others. This brings people together to support each other during times of grief, which is exactly what happened in Qiqihar.
Countless citizens poured their hearts out online, and thousands visited the site to lay flowers. This is not by far the first time such an outpouring has happened. But there’s one incident that occurred in the UK which first comes to mind, likely because I’m British. The Aberfan disaster in Wales in 1966 was a tragic event involving the collapse of a mining waste tip onto a primary school, resulting in the loss of 116 children and 28 adults. It had a profound impact on the entire town and is often referred to as the “darkest day in Welsh history.”
Following the tragedy, several public figures, including Queen Elizabeth II and the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, expressed their condolences and addressed the loss experienced by the community.
One especially relevant statement was made by the queen during her visit to Aberfan. On October 29, 1966, she visited the town to offer her sympathies and support. In a speech, she said: “The feeling of sorrow and sympathy which has been so spontaneously expressed by practically the whole world, must now be turned into a determination that this kind of thing shall not be allowed to happen again.”
In this address, the queen acknowledged the profound grief experienced by the people of Aberfan while recognizing the immeasurable loss and sorrow expressed globally.
While both catastrophes involve children, our care isn’t reserved for the young though loss of life at an early age — when so much time and potential gets taken — is particularly hard to forgive. The Grenfell Tower fire in England, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States are just a handful of catastrophes that shook the world.
But why do we mourn so deeply for those we do not know?
On hearing about Qiqihar, I called my good friend and Shanghai-based mental health counselor Eason Yi Shang. He was profoundly affected by the tragedy. “I felt sad, shocked, and deeply moved by the school roof disaster. I can’t fathom the pain those parents experienced. Even now tears still come to my eyes.”
Eason’s reaction relates to a theory he explained called secondary trauma. When distant disasters unfold, emotional ripples extend far beyond the immediate area. As news travels, touching countless lives across regions and nations, individuals are indirectly exposed to harrowing events. Witnessing the devastating loss of lives or the impact on communities evokes powerful responses in people across regions and nations, even those thousands of miles away.
Secondary trauma speaks to the interconnectedness of our human experience. Though we may not know those hurt, we can empathize with their pain. Constant influx of distressing news and images through the media and social networks only compounds the emotional toll, leading to feelings of helplessness, sadness and even survivor guilt. As the global community becomes more connected, the impact of distant tragedies on individuals and societies is increasingly evident. Grief knows no geographical boundaries, and a collective response can serve as a powerful force for healing.
In the wake of Qiqihar, strength emerged from the grief-stricken community. Amid overwhelming loss, people came together for those affected. Neighbors, friends and strangers joined hands to support grieving families, and grassroots initiatives sprouted, advocating for safer infrastructure and greater measures to prevent future accidents. Through a united effort, the community transformed pain into action, honoring the memory of those lost by striving for change and societal progress.
This process of healing and support was similarly witnessed in Aberfan, where the entire town found strength in unity. The community’s collective mourning and determination to honor the memory of lives lost manifested in a resolve to prevent similar tragedies. Both Qiqihar and Aberfan demonstrate the power of community healing and support, illustrating how individuals, bound by shared grief, can rise above pain and connect in their determination to heal.
For Eason, the tragedy in Qiqihar has been a transformative moment. “It’s reminded me to cherish time with my loved ones, appreciating even the smallest gestures. And it’s ignited a wish within me to create a mental health crisis response team, like a ‘counselors without borders’ organization, alongside the existing emergency response teams. I’m determined to connect with like-minded peers and pursue this vision for our society.”
I now believe we don’t move on from grief, but rather, we move forward with it. Yet, I find myself at a loss for words when met with the magnitude of losing a child. In the face of tragedy, we must confront the undeniable truth: The only certainty in life is death.
As we bear witness to the stories of Qiqihar, Aberfan and other events that shape our world, let us never forget the power of compassion. By recognizing the unquantifiable nature of loss and therefore grief, we stand together. Even in the darkest moments, we are not alone. Though words may fail us, the connections forged through collective experiences offer hope to heal as one.
Together we heal: moving through unquantifiable loss
Human beings are hard-wired to connect with each other; from mirror neurons to attachment theories, we have enough scientific evidence and empirical experience to confirm this fact. Challenges to one’s acceptance, security or connection are perceived as threats by the human brain. Tragedies and disasters, like what recently happened in Qiqihar, trigger profound emotions due to the nature of their unquantifiable loss.
However, these moments also present opportunities for us to come together, bonding as a cohesive society. Sometimes, only by moving through the unquantifiable loss together can we truly help the families who have lost their loved ones. For those of us fortunate enough to live another day with our loved ones still by our side, collective support can help us find closure without the emotional burden of helplessness and guilt. As the old saying goes, “all for one, one for all.”