Communal Grief and Solidarity after 4/16/07 at Virginia Tech
Laura Agnich, Doctoral Student
James Hawdon, Associate Professor
John Ryan, Professor and Chair Virginia Tech
Below, we express our experiences with the mass shootings, the deadliest campus shooting in U.S. history, which occurred at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. These are experiences we wish we did not have and many of them are too personal to share. We share those experiences that we can make sense of through our sociological perspectives and training. Even as we write this, our colleagues at Northern Illinois University are involved in a tragedy of their own and our hearts go out to them.
The Virginia Tech shooting in Blacksburg, VA, left 33 people dead (including the gunman, who took his own life) and 17 injured. The Blacksburg community was shocked and horrified that such violence happened here. An outpouring of support from all over the world immediately followed the event as our campus received messages of encouragement and solace, care packages, and many other gifts. Along with the expected media deluge, religious leaders, grief counselors, psychiatrists, and other therapists quickly descended on our small town of about 40,000 (more than 25,000 of whom are Virginia Tech students).
Grief Counselors and Therapy
One week after the shooting, when classes resumed, grief counselors and volunteers from all over the country, were stationed on nearly every corner on campus near every classroom and each highly populated area. Many wore buttons asking, "May I Help?" Some wore buttons that promised a hug. We were also given the opportunity to invite counselors into our classrooms. One of us watched as the grief counselor sobbed in her own grief in front of a classroom of 60 silent undergraduates.
It is of course an empirical question whether counseling and therapy were beneficial to the family, friends, and loved ones of the victims, first responders, and those who directly survived the attacks. However, we wonder if the well-intending counseling community’s common psychological-oriented approach may have been less effective because the majority of Blacksburg residents did not have a direct relationship with the victims or the crime (Hughes 2008). We were a grieving community, and the failure to distinguish between personal and communal grief led to some misplaced attempts at healing those not directly affected by the tragedy at Virginia Tech.
Personal Grief vs. Communal Grief
The counselors who arrived during the immediate aftermath came under the assumption that community grief can be treated with the same techniques used to treat personal grief. The dominant psychological paradigm of grief after 4/16/07 further carried the assumption that because the community had been harmed, all individuals in Blacksburg had as well. This is an ecological fallacy. This is especially problematic because interventions that focus solely on treating the individual fail to recognize the healing that can be experienced through engaging in community-level rituals of solidarity and bereavement. Although some psychological interventions pointed to the importance of participating in symbolic displays of solidarity with the Virginia Tech community, most recommended seeing professional counselors, going home to families, or "going to the place where you will get the best hugs." While these approaches may be effective for people suffering individual grief, they may not be the best approach for dealing with communal grief. This psychological paradigm ignores the inherent healing power of communal grief.
Therapy Through Solidarity
Communal bereavement is the widespread experience of grief among people who did not know and never met the deceased; it is marked by mass gatherings of mourners and acts of condolence (Catalano & Hartig 2001; Hawdon et al. forthcoming). During the week of 4/16/07, we observed a mass outpouring of condolence at events such as the convocation ceremony attended by more than 10,000 people, including President Bush, and the candlelight vigil on the Drillfield—both held on the day after the shooting. At the convocation, Nikki Giovanni’s poem inspired the rallying cry for healing the Hokie community, "We are Virginia Tech…We will prevail!" April 20 was named "Hokie Hope Day," and most everyone on campus and supporters from across the country wore orange and maroon to honor the victims and show solidarity with the Virginia Tech community. The following day, thousands of community members gathered once again on the Drillfield for a community picnic and reflection gathering. Communal bereavement rituals continued for months following the shootings, but with less frequency and smaller crowds (the exception being "A Concert for Virginia Tech" on September 6, 2007, attended by more than 50,000 people).
During the first two weeks following the tragedy, people wore black VT ribbons, and a large majority of Virginia Tech students with a Facebook or Myspace account had posted the black VT ribbon as their profile picture. Similar symbolic displays continue to this day, although not to the same extent. Around town "We will prevail" bumper stickers can be seen on cars and many establishments assert "We are Virginia Tech" on large signs in their windows.
These displays of solidarity are common after mass tragedies. For example, the use of patriotic emblems on clothing and flags on homes following the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks as symbols of solidarity, increased rapidly, reached a plateau after two to three months, and returned to normalcy after six months to a year (Collins 2004). We witnessed a similar rapid increase, plateau, and subsequent drop in post-4/16 symbolic displays of solidarity and rituals of communal grief. In addition, comparing 2006 data that include common measures of social solidarity with similar data from 2007, we found that levels of solidarity among Virginia Tech students increased by 20% (Hawdon et al. article under submission). We are currently collecting data for 2008.
Benefits of Communal Grief
Durkheim ( 1964) argued that crime that shocks a community’s collective sentiments serves the function of increasing solidarity and normative consensus among its members. We agree. The collective solidarity we witnessed were displays of the community’s resiliency and may have served as a healing mechanism for many. From our vantage point, they helped us struggle with personal grief and our communal grief. We believe we all benefited from the rituals of communal grief.
Even though the effectiveness of grief counseling at the individual level has been questioned (Center for the Advancement of Health 2003), we do not suggest that the therapeutic community does not have an important role to play for those individuals who are directly affected by the tragedy and for people who do not have the social networks that have historically helped individuals process grief. We in no way mean to downplay the intense personal grief felt by some community members, but communal grief does not require a therapeutic approach because, as Durkheim noted, communal grief can itself be healing. When counselors and therapists enter a community experiencing communal bereavement, they can undermine the solidarity-producing effects of having masses of people gather in collective grief and collective support. One participant in a focus group remarked that her parents wanted her to come home during the week after the shootings. She declined, stating, "My family was here." She did not regret her decision to stay. Communal grief had the power to heal many of us after 4/16/07.
The bereavement rituals that followed the Virginia Tech tragedy left in place an infrastructure of networks and voluntary organizations that proved adept at organizing community events in symbolic solidarity with other campus communities. For example, after the February 14, 2008, shooting at Northern Illinois University, the Virginia Tech community gathered once again for a candlelight vigil, this time wearing red and black. A speaker at the vigil said, "We are the Huskies… We will all prevail."
Catalano, Ralph and Terry Hartig. 2001. "Communal Bereavement and the Incidence of Very Low Birthweight in Sweden." Journal of Health and Social Behavior 42: 333-341.
Center for the Advancement of Health. 2003. Report on Bereavement and Grief Research.
Collins, Randall. 2004. "Rituals of Solidarity and Security in the Wake of Terrorist Attack." Sociological Theory 22: 53-87.
Durkheim, Emile.  1964. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press.
Hawdon, James. Forthcoming. “Communal Bereavement.” In Encyclopedia of Death and the Human Experience, edited by Clifton Bryant and Dennis Peck. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hawdon, James, John Ryan, and Laura Agnich. "Crime as a Source of Solidarity: A Research Note Testing Durkheim’s Assertion." Article under submission. Hughes, Michael D. 2008. Personal Communication via e-mail. March 3, 2008.