Photo: Mike Labrum / Unsplash

We’re roughly halfway through 2022 and there have already been more than 250 mass shootings in the United States. New Yorkers were still reeling from the racially motivated shooting in Buffalo that claimed 10 lives when we began receiving notification about the massacre in Uvalde, Texas. When a shooting happens, it’s not only direct family members who are affected, but entire communities. But how does one effectively grieve? Jill Cohen, a NYC-based grief counselor, speaks with Epicenter-NYC reporter Andrea Pineda-Salgado about how to best cope with the feelings that follow tragic events like mass shootings. 

The following has been edited for clarity.

Epicenter-NYC: What is grief?

Cohen: Grief is the feelings you feel after the death of a loved one. Grief also comes after a job loss, divorce or a breakup. When it comes to grief over the loss of a loved one, in a way, how you grieve is the last gift you give to a loved one. Your grief is proportional to the love that was lost. That doesn’t mean that if you don’t grieve you didn’t love the person, it just means that your tears are proportionate to the love. 

Epicenter: Is grief caused by gun violence different from the grief caused by death from health issues or natural causes?

Cohen: It is, because number one, it’s inarguably a sudden death. A sudden death is very different from death resulting from an illness that was expected, a long time coming or when you put a person out of some kind of pain. Neither is worse, neither is better. They are just completely different, but you can’t prepare for a gun death, you can’t prepare for violence. It’s not only hard to make sense of but in a sense it is unfair — so is death by illness — but there is no reason for a gun violence death. It just shouldn’t have happened under any condition. There are often ways it could have been prevented through gun laws and proper screening. A gun death can be harder because there are so many levels to it. If it’s on the news, sometimes the family is the center of attention and it becomes a regional or national issue, it’s another layer of attention. 

Epicenter: Can people not directly involved in a shooting still experience grief? 

Cohen: Yes, one example is the recent school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. For a long time, I have not seen such grief nationally as I did when the Uvalde shooting happened or Buffalo a couple of weeks before. This country mourned and other countries mourned for us. It’s grieving a society that we felt was safe but no longer feels safe or may no longer be safe. 

Epicenter: What are ways people can cope with an event they were not directly involved in?

Cohen: The grief is different if they were not involved in it if it wasn’t in their state, wasn’t in their school, it wasn’t in their family. People who were not directly involved can grieve well when they talk about it and get it off their chest. You would get on the bus or train or walk down the street and people would say ‘Isn’t that terrible?’ It’s about expressing ourselves and being heard. Maybe it wasn’t your child and you weren’t in Uvalde or Buffalo but you can say, ‘Isn’t that horrible?’ The big line after Uvalde was: Hold your child closer tonight. There was a lesson learned. People grieve well because they grieve in community, they talk about it, others send money — whatever helps you cope. You can’t bring their loved ones back but you can help the families. People were talking about it nonstop and that’s grief. Another thing that can help is taking more action. Making meaning out of the situation and taking political action so that shooting does not happen again. 

Epicenter: What are the consequences of constant exposure to news about gun violence?

Cohen: The biggest one is that we become numb to it and we begin to see this as the new normal. If we all start having a lackadaisical attitude, that’s going to be a problem because change comes from communities taking action. We can say ‘not again’ but we can’t say ‘what else is new’ because that is not okay.

Epicenter: How can people avoid becoming numb?

Cohen: We must stay present to the fact that this is not okay. It’s not okay that this continues to happen but we can affect change in the voting booth. It’s absolutely the only way to control gun violence. The only thing we can do is control access to guns. If you start to think ‘Here we go again, another shooting,’ reframe it. Instead of getting used to it, we have to get upset, we have to get angrier and we have to see that we can make change happen. 

Epicenter: How can a community grieve effectively?

Cohen: Generally, grieving in the community is very productive. When a whole community brings flowers and they have vigils, kids draw things, it is beautiful when people memorialize what happened in a public way. It’s very healing because all some people may want is to have a place to come, cry, scream and say ‘this is not fair.’ 

Epicenter: What tips and advice would you give people who want to help those grieving a loved one?

Cohen: First of all, I wish people knew this more — you can’t say to somebody ‘I know how you feel,’ because you don’t. Let’s say someone lost their child in a shooting, and someone else had a child that passed away. You can’t say ‘I know how you feel because I had a daughter that died.’ You have no idea how the person might feel. The phrases ‘I’m thinking of you’ or ‘praying for you’ are nice, but not effective. Be present and say nothing, because you can’t bring the person back. Just listening to them cry, scream, shout and weep is the best thing you can do. Also helping physically — instead of saying ‘can I make dinner?’ just make it and bring it over.

Epicenter: Has the pandemic affected grief?

Cohen: In a sense, we started thinking about grief in terms of numbers and statistics, we weren’t necessarily numb to it, but death became statistical. Unless you knew the people, the Covid deaths were just a number. Death also became a household word because pre-pandemic children didn’t know what the word meant. All of a sudden kids saw people they knew die — their teachers, bus drivers and relatives.

Epicenter: How can we help children who may be too afraid to take the train or go to school?

Cohen: You have to remind them that it doesn’t happen every day. That it was a very sad thing that happened and nobody expected it but usually things are very safe. You can remind them that teachers work very hard to keep us safe and secure so that no ‘bad people’ come in. It’s really about giving children a sense of safety. 

Epicenter: What about adults who might be fearful of subway violence but still rely on it for work? How can they deal with their fears and grief?

Cohen: I think if they are very traumatized by it, they can think of it as a one-off — it doesn’t happen every day. It’s also okay to avoid it. If you can afford to, there is nothing wrong or embarrassing to say, ‘I do not feel comfortable right now.’  You can also look at the situation by saying ‘I’m doing everything I can to be safe,’ perhaps by not staying close to the tracks or waiting for your train on the stairs instead of the platform. Whatever makes you feel comfortable. You can also remind yourself, ‘I’ve been taking the subway for X number of years and this doesn’t usually happen.’ Try to reason with it. 

How to help or get help:

Dealing with grief isn’t easy. If you or someone you know is in need of help, here are some resources that can help:

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