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Making sense of sudden mass deaths

Updated Thursday, 2 April 2020
Sudden, brutal death; and so many deaths, at one time. What does it do to you to be one of the bereaved in such a traumatic event such as the 9/11 attacks or a pandemic like Covid-19?

Pandemics are one example of where societies can experience a sense of sudden mass death. The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 provides an illustration of this, with unprecedented death rates in multiple countries at the same time. Locally and globally people are experiencing sudden mass death. Whilst the article below reflects on sudden, violent mass death, drawing largely on the experience of 9/11, many of the core messages apply to pandemics as well. People are likely to experience different forms of grief and communities may respond in variety of manners. And whilst there may not be the same need to search for bodies as there would be after a terrorist attack or natural disaster, the risk of contagion from the dying and deceased affects how mortuary and funerary practices are done, including a reduction in visitation and public memorial gatherings.

- Erica Borgstrom

The text below was written by Carol Komaromy in 2011, ten years after the 911 attacks:

In response to sudden, unexpected and violent death, bereaved people are likely to share the act of searching as one of the initial responses. This searching can be both materially and metaphorically for survivors, reasons and meaning.

The search for bodies is the first step following any mass death situation and September 11 was no exception, indeed this was something that continued for years.

Beyond this initial shared response reactions to death are likely to be very different. It is 10 years since the September 11th deaths and it is fairly safe to assume that the people bereaved by this event will be experiencing different forms of grief, some aspects of which will be shared and many will not.

Much has been written about the deluge of counsellors following 9/11. In 2004, Dr. Jerome Groopman wrote an article in the New Yorker in which he challenged the need for a counselling response being based on the assumption that everyone would need bereavement counselling.

The shift from community responses to individualised grief counselling might reflect the individual focus in western societies, and possibly the loss of a sense of community. Indeed, recent trends in the professionalization and medicalisation of grief suggest that communities might have lost the resources to support each other.

While communities might pull together in the immediate aftermath, there is evidence to suggest that they will not agree on how to respond to tragedies – not least in the tension between continuous remembrance and the need to move on.Further, while communities might pull together in the immediate aftermath, there is evidence to suggest that they will not agree on how to respond to tragedies – not least in the tension between continuous remembrance and the need to move on. In Norway, one year after the killings of 77 people by Anders Behring Breivik in 2011, people gathered to mark the death of the people killed on 22nd July. It was hoped that this would bring some form of closure to the families and the communities. Any number of tragedies in the UK and elsewhere, highlights this type of tension which is often played out in the process of memorialisation.

Social scientists would caution against generalisations which, at least, are unhelpful and, at worst, harmful. Evidence on social behaviour following other mass death events suggests that some people need the support of others while, in contrast, for some the experience of such loss can be isolating.

In her work on traumatic death, mass death and disaster, the sociologist Anne Eyre, undertook a scholarship to visit the firemen in New York five years after the 9/11 attacks. The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) lost 343 of its members. This was the largest loss of any emergency response agency in history.

Eyre noted how western cultures need symbolically to mark sites and give families choices and control in relation to public ritual and remembrance. This public 'non-forgetting' can also have negative effects on those who want to move on, as she argues.

By contrast to the perceived need for emotional support, the New York fire fighters were encouraged to support each other rather than use bereavement counsellors. Anne's findings from the scholarship revealed the extent of their resilience - being designated as a hero it seems - enhanced their coping skills.

While responses to death are different within and between groups, there are trends in attitudes that reflect the way that societies shape these responses.

Memorial to firefighters killed in the response to the September 11th 2001 A memorial to the firefighters lost in the response to the September 11th, 2001 attacks

The focus on the emotional dimensions of grief was evident following 9/11 and is a theme within contemporary western societies. Indeed, not following the anticipated grief pathway suggests some sort of individual deviance just as much as the inability to move on might.

What is clear about grief is that it can only be understood in a social and historical context. The way that New York marks the 10th anniversary will reveal as much about its political and social recovery as it will about its emotional one.

Further reading and references

Collective loss and Community Resilience After September 11
by Anne Eyre in Making Sense of Death, Dying and Bereavement: An Anthology
Edited by Sarah Earle, Caroline Bartholomew and Carol Komaromy, published by Sage & The Open University

The grief industry: how much does crisis counselling help or hurt?
by Jerome Groopman
in The New Yorker 26 January, 2004


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