How the 5 stages of grief can help us better understand the way we see activism.
by Kassandra Camille C. Galang
On March 17, 2021, I spend my day like I usually do — scrolling through various social media
platforms in between meetings, classes and work. No matter which platform I choose, I see the
same type of headlines: “Eight killed, including six Asian women, in Atlanta-area spa
These posts are usually followed by aesthetically designed calls to action saying, “How to
support the AAPI community, in 7 photos or less on Instagram,” or “Don’t forget to check on
your Asian friends!” Accounts will have colorful statistics on hate crimes against the Asian
community made on Canva. Then, there’s mental health resources for the AAPI community, and
60 second Tik Toks explaining the recent events.
These are not bad things. In fact, these are incredible resources that can be quickly shared on
global platforms and are easily understood by the average person. Social media has made
activism and education on topics of social justice much more accessible.
So why am I so tired of seeing them? After the shooting, a friend had messaged me sharing their
concern for my well-being as well as their anger at this event. My reply was, “I don’t think I get
angry anymore; I just get drained.”
When it comes to activism, I’ve noticed that my passion and drive for enacting change simmers
very quickly. I see a lot of people on social media who are hurt or angry, but they are also driven
to seek change within their communities. They don’t seem to get tired of having these
conversations with people who actively want to listen. They take every opportunity to call out
people who are ignorant and vocalize racist attitudes towards others in order to hold these people
accountable. Why am I not reacting like they are?
Anger, frustration, weariness, sadness and pain — these are all part of grief. After each instance
of violence in our communities, we grieve. Some of us grieve differently than others. Many of us
are familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
What might the stages of grief look like in activism?
When we typically think about the stages of grief, they appear to move linearly from denial all
the way to acceptance. In activism, these stages are not necessarily linear. Instead, they can be
used as helpful tools to understand how we personally approach activism after violent events.
These stages can also help us understand where others are in their activism journey.
How do we define activism?
Everyone has a different image of what activism is supposed to look like. Some people would
consider reading and educating themselves on current events and justice-related topics as a form
of activism. Others would consider activism to be spreading awareness and sharing resources
through social media or other platforms. Some fellow APU students shared what they consider to
be their definitions of activism.
“Activism implies taking your passion and your outrage towards a particular injustice and
putting it into positive action, with the ultimate goal being to eventually see systemic change,”
said Avery Foster, a senior psychology and honors humanities major. Most of us can agree that
activism requires us to take some form of action. However, this can look different for each
Dhyana Lau, a senior music and worship major, defines activism as, “Active learning and
listening which contributes to activities, speech and daily decisions that promote a better, more
just future,” which can look like civil protesting, financial support for a cause, reading a book or
even having meaningful conversations about current events or topics of social justice.
Activism in our lives can look like large-scale actions such as protesting and donating. It can also
look more interpersonal and relational. Alexis Cox, a senior English and honors humanities
major, refers to activism as “miniature daily rebellions.” These miniature rebellions can look like
correcting when someone mistakenly uses the wrong pronoun, supporting ethical businesses,
voting for change in our communities.
One important aspect of activism is how we factor it into our daily lives. Chai Gaynair, a senior
psychology and humanities major, said, “I would describe my activism as a lifestyle because it
doesn’t turn off… I’m always thinking about it, always evaluating the systems that I’m in,
always challenging people and systems and the things that are being taught to me.” Activism
might also look like reflecting on our own privileges, motivations and biases.
Activism has many forms. Regardless of how we each uniquely view activism, we can use the
five stages of grief to better understand how we approach activism.
Activism and the 5 stages of grief
Denial: “This isn’t happening.”
Violent events are difficult to process. Authors of On “Grief and Grieving;” David Kessler and
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, characterize the stage of denial as meaninglessness, numbness, and
shock. Denial might look like immediate shock, fear and pain at incidents we see in the news every day. At the same time, a person in the stage of denial may not be ready to understand the
deeper implications of why an event has happened. For some people, the connection between
violent events and racism, sexism, ableism and other prejudices are more apparent. For others,
these connections do not come as easily.
Denial may also look like rationalizing away the cause of an event. One example of this is
Cherokee County sheriff Capt. Jay Baker’s statement that the white male suspect who murdered
8 people in Atlanta, Georgia’s violent actions were caused by his sex addiction and a bad day,
according to NBC News.
We are not all born as activists. It is an intentional learning process and active lifestyle change.
At some point in our journey towards activism, I believe we have all started at the denial stage.
Anger: “This is happening again!”
Anger is one of the most common and well-known driving forces of activism. We see this often
in response to violent events. People are angry at injustice and actively seek to right wrongs
within our systems in order to prevent more violent events from happening.
When asked about their reaction to the Atlanta shooting, Foster shared, “I must be completely
honest in the fact that while it broke my heart, I had no idea how to help the situation or what to
speak out about, or if it was even my place to speak out. While I was heartbroken and shaken up
by the events that unfolded, I also recognize that it doesn’t hit me as personally as it may hit
others who are part of the Asian community. All I can really say is that I am angry for them.”
Anger can look like protesting and petitioning. However, anger in activism does not always have
to be outwardly expressed. Anger can also look like internalizing the pain of the events that have
occurred. Even if we believe it is not our place to speak for another group, we can still feel a
sense of pain and anger for the experiences they face.
The anger stage of activism can also be seen as a transitioning phase from the stage of denial.
“The fact that my own husband, who is from Hong Kong, asked me after hearing the news if he
should be afraid to go outside absolutely enraged me and helped push me out of the denial
phase,” Lau said.
From these few examples, we can see that anger in activism is an emotion with diverse
expressions. Kessler and Kubler-Ross say, “Anger is a necessary stage of the healing process.”
Just as anger is necessary to bring healing in our grief, anger is also necessary for us to seek
healing in our communities.
Bargaining: “Why does this happen to x and not y?”
According to Kessler and Kubler-Ross, bargaining in grief is an exchange for something we
desperately want to hold onto. Perhaps, we pray for a loved one’s return to health in exchange
for us changing our behavior — going to church more, stopping drinking or smoking — or
longing for just one more chance to spend with our loved ones.
In activism, bargaining might instead look like questioning the systems and experiences in place.
Why is one group targeted over another group? Why does no other group seem to care about the
suffering going on in the group I am a part of? There is a deep sense of confusion and
uncertainty in the stage of bargaining.
However, asking these questions is an important part of activism and learning more about the
issues that affect our communities. The curiosity and confusion in the stage of bargaining opens
us to learning about the experiences of others.
Depression: “This is happening again…”
Being bombarded constantly with violence in the news can take a toll on us mentally,
emotionally and physically. The stage of depression can be found in emotional sadness or feeling
drained. It can also feel like a lack of hope that change will be made and that people will not
understand the importance of these issues.
Cox, who identifies with this stage of grief in activism, states, “I feel so much absolute guilt for
saying this, but it’s been hard to feel hope for my home, my school, my insensitive family
members. Where I used to itch to do something, say something, act against someone, I am now
barely pulling myself out of a heaviness to do those same things. And I feel horrible even typing
that out. My experience is nothing compared to those who’ve actually experienced this
outrageous racism their entire lives.”
In this stage of grief, we may not know how to react to violent events that we see in the media.
We may feel like it is not our place to speak up because we do not fit the identity of a group that
is being discriminated against. We may also feel a sense of guilt, pain, and sadness at seeing the
fear others within our communities experience.
Senior psychology and honors humanities major, Whitney Zeimis, shares a similar feeling of
sadness,: “I have had a hard time confronting and taking much action in the realm of these recent
hate crimes due to my proximity to this community, so I have felt stuck in this sad, angry state of
questioning why something so evil occurs in the first place. It feels like a weight that no person
should have to carry, and it is something put on us by someone else. That’s the unfairness of it.”
For those of us in this stage of activism, the author of this article included, we should not rush
our grieving process. We should not have to feel guilty for not consistently being in a mindset of
forward movement and action. Taking the time to stop and reflect is just as important.
Acceptance: “This is happening again… How can we move forward?”
Acceptance does not necessarily equate to happiness or optimism. It is the knowledge that these
events are happening and will likely continue to happen despite our best efforts. This knowledge
is paired with the desire to continue moving forward.
Senior nursing major, Alicia Dwyer, reflects on the stage of acceptance in this way: “Hate is
unfortunately a part of this world. It’s a byproduct of the pain or misconception people feel. And
unfortunately, instead of finding a healthy outlet, people take it out on other individuals or in this
case [the Atlanta shooting] an ethnic group. Yes, this is happening. The question is how to move
forward now in a logical manner that can help prevent this in the future or educate on the signs.”
Sometimes grief can feel like it prevents us from taking action, but we can use it to propel us
“I think now as I answer your questions, it forces me to stop, which I don’t often do in activism
work, and sit with the weight of what has happened. I think this can make it a little harder to do
activism work, but also it makes it a little bit easier because you use the pain and the sadness as
fuel to power you into action,” stated Gaynair.
My intention with this article is to point out that in every stage of activism, whether that’s denial
or acceptance, grief is present. Grief is a wonderful tool that helps us stop and reflect on the pain
and suffering within our communities. Regardless of where we are in our journey in activism, we
need to take the time and space to grieve before, during and after as we strive to make changes in
our systems and communities.