What happens with a society when 800 Covid-related deaths were reported for one day, as was the case this past Wednesday?
Attempts to make sense of death, dying and grief as a rule focus on the psychological impact on individuals and families – the very human struggle with shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and finding meaning.
How local communities respond to bereavement most often are studied by reading the cultural and religious rites and rituals that people together and publicly enact to express and mediate the sorrow they share.
Furthermore, it is plain to see that how people behave at this time, such as through their responses to lockdown regulations, also represents a very real social and political dynamic that permeates society.
What people, groups and institutions choose to do at this point in the history of a society, represent performances of citizens and the state, and therefore, broadly speaking, represent expressions of political discourses, collective identities, and nationhood.
However, this also means that how people respond to, and adhere or not, to lockdown regulations, not only represent the conduct of citizens, but arguably also reveal an underlying societal process of grief as collectively we try to make sense of the trauma of death and dying.
Differently put: to ignore the curfew, not wear a mask or visit the beach are more than citizen performances of ignorance or protest, but arguably also represent a hidden societal response to the trauma of death and dying.
People grief at home, and then go out to publicly enact their grief as citizens, and therein reveal an underlying societal reality – a “sociology of grief”.
The three notions of positionality, othering and emergence begin to explain societal responses to the current trauma.
The notion of “positionality” refers to the place in relation to others that a citizen or collective holds in the economic, political and social hierarchies of society.
Citizens’ positionality set the conditions for how they experience the death, dying and grief a society faces, and for how they perform as social and political actors in response to that reality.
This means that how individuals, groups and institutions respond depends on how free each is to do as they wish, and what access each has to resources.
On the face of it, the fact that some continue to visit beaches, and others do not, seems to illustrate the reality of societal hierarchies.
“Othering” refers to the social process where people define themselves in opposition to those different from them in order to keep themselves safe from what they perceive to be a threat. It is a strategy and project to distance one from trauma and avoid the grief others face.
However, othering also refers to the state-sanctioned process of increasing isolation of people that result from the lockdown regulations of physical and social distancing, as much as from citizens’ adhering to the rules.
The notion of “emergence” refers to a growing movement of alternative performances by citizens to counter the threat of positionality and othering in how society responds to the traumas of death and grief.
It refers to how people design new ways to express their solidarity, such as with the developing trend of families to stream funeral services online for anyone to join – a new ritual of public grief, where not only some, but all may mourn and begin to heal together.
* The Rev Dr BR Rudi Buys is Executive Dean and Dean of Humanities of the non-profit higher education institution, Cornerstone Institute, and editor: African Journal of Non-Profit Higher Education, ISSN 2706-669X.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.