July 19, 2021

The Surfside Collapse and Public Grief

Many people experience grief following news of a public tragedy.

Public grief is real. When catastrophe strikes—9/11, Sandy Hook, and, most recently, the Champlain Towers collapse in Surfside, Florida—many of us find ourselves glued to the TV or anxiously reading the news, desperate for hope and anguished when none arrives. If you’ve been crying and thinking frequently of the Surfside victims, and if perhaps you’ve become anxious as to whether this tragedy could happen to you, you are not alone. In fact, far from it.

Public grief can carry the same emotions as grieving a loved one. Our emotions can feel particularly intense if we personally identify with the victims. For example, the Surfside collapse disproportionately impacted the Jewish and South American communities. If you are Jewish or South American, the tragedy may have hit you especially hard. We have also seen and heard personal stories that affect us for other reasons. If you are retirement-age, your heart might have gone out to the retirees who just moved to Florida in search of a quiet life; the single mother and her daughter who slept (and were found together) in the same bed may have devastated you if you, too, are a single parent.

It is all truly heartbreaking.

And it is also legitimate. Clients and family have come to me with concerns that their grief is misplaced or unwarranted. Some of these clients and family members have even been admonished by other (well-meaning) loved ones for having such strong feelings about people they have never met. It is unfortunate that our society pressures us to deny our grief and “just get on with it” –a phenomenon discussed in Joanne Cacciatore’s fabulous book on grief, Bearing the Unbearable. Indeed, denying our grief is unfortunate for many reasons—including and especially that denying them doesn’t work.

So, if the Surfside collapse—or any other public tragedy—has been on your mind and heart, know that you are not wrong to feel for the people who died, even if you never knew them in real life. Empathy is our inheritance as humans—it is part of what makes us the very special creatures we are.