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Section 6: Communal grief

HIV/AIDS is an example of a life-threatening condition that affects substantial groups of people, leaving a sense of helplessness, shame, trauma and grief in its wake. The Covid-19 pandemic has also swept through much (if not all) of the world leaving very few people untouched. Climate change and natural disasters are examples of crises that affect communities leaving many people experiencing loss and grieving together. Although this section explore HIV/AIDS — an epidemic still affecting much of Southern Africa — there are many similarities. School shooting such as take place in the United States, is another example of grief and loss that affects communities.



HIV stands for Human Immuno-Deficiency Virus, and is a virus which targets and compromises the human immune system (Whiteside & Sunter, 2000). The disease is contracted with the exchange of certain bodily fluids from an infected person to another through sexual intercourse and other incidents where there may be exposure to inflected blood (UNAIDS, 2006).

There are various stages of the disease, whereby the person’s immune system becomes increasingly compromised, with the final resultant condition of the disease being AIDS or Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (Whiteside & Sunter, 2000). This then results in opportunistic infections such as tuberculosis and pneumonia taking hold and it is then that death may result due to the debilitated immune system’s inability to ward off infection (ibid).

Over 5.5 million South Africans are estimated to be living with HIV and AIDS. In mid-2006 there were close to 600 000 children and adults in South-Africa who were ‘AIDS sick”. In the same year approximately 950 South Africans died every day of AIDS related deaths. Many of these were children. Others were mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, leaving millions of children deeply affected by illness and death (A Children’s sector guide, 2009).

Since 2005, Lefika has been facilitating art counselling groups with children who are AIDS orphans and/or at risk. Many of these children are themselves HIV positive, some on antiretroviral treatment, others who are not, and some who died during the time of the groups.

Listed below are some of the problems associated with HIV/AIDS:

  • Stigma and isolation – disease draws attention to a number of cultural taboos, i.e. sex and death
  • Homophobia – alienation from families, religious institutions not supported, disenfranchised grief
  • Worry about general health status – AIDS bereaved may also be infected
  • Stress of care-giving - may have to give up job, twenty-four-hour caring can be very stressful emotionally and physically
  • Multiple losses – friends and family may have also died, compounding losses
  • Suicide – incidence of suicide is higher than in the general population
  • Alcohol and substance abuse prevalent
  • Age and stage differences – average age at death is 36; implications family planning, job success … now dealing with illness and death


6.2 COVID-19 and climate change

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the planet - individuals, families, villages, towns, cities and countries are grieving not only the death of loved ones but also the loss of coming together, the loss of freedom, the loss of jobs and the loss of a sense of a certain future. Covid-19 represents a loss of a way of being in the world and what makes this process even harder is that we are all going through the same grief together. It’s hard on people who are normally the holders of grief such as counsellors and therapists because they are going through the same experience - this is a unique situation. Finding spaces and rituals to speak about what we are going through. The arts are really valuable during times of communal loss because the arts can be ritualised, they can contain and hold, and they can speak for us when it is hard to speak.

Climate change, although less obvious, is affecting many communities. Fires are raging on the west coast (California) of the United States, and floods on the east coast of the US, as well as in Europe and China, there are volcanoes and earthquakes, glaciers melting, sea levels rising in some places and dropping in others, loss of wildlife, severe droughts in Africa, the list goes on. What can make our grief more complicated is the denialism that exists around climate change. The evidence is before us but the people in power seem to be unable or unwilling to respond in ways that could change the trajectory we are on. We are grieving for planet earth and often feel helpless and as if there is nothing we can do. Again the arts can help us to express and to explore these events and our feelings towards them.


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