6 Ways to Grieve for the Election

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Earlier this year, Washington University researcher Lamar Pierce co-authored a study on the happiness levels of Republicans and Democrats in the weeks before and after the 2012 election. It’s a case study in political grief: He found that the losers felt a sharp increase in sadness after Election Day, but it “quickly dissipated,” he tells Science of Us. “We equate this to being similar to a major sporting event. Losing hits you hard, but then you move on in a week.”

But, as he explained over email, this election may be different. “Based on the statements and rhetoric of the winning candidate, many people that I know who are people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants, and women feel deeply shaken and fearful,” he writes. “This is something beyond grief, and more toward fear.”

The question is, what do you do with all that angst? After talking with people who study these things, here are a few suggestions.

Recognize that people aren’t voting for, as much as against.

NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, said that he’d urge people to separate their feelings about the candidates from their feelings about the people who voted for them. In America’s two-party system, “most people don’t vote for a candidate,” he said. “Since 2004 our presidential elections are mostly about voting against the other person.” While dishonesty, Machiavellianism, and narcissism may describe the personalities of the candidates, that’s not necessarily the character of the other side of the electorate.

Name what it is you’re feeling.

A lot of being able to deal with feelings depends on your ability to articulate them, or so indicates 20-some years of research by Lisa Feldman Barrett, author of the forthcoming How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain and head of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Lab at Northeastern University. Barrett has found that having higher “emotionality granularity,” or being able to differentiate between different states like despair, dejection, or duress helps people take care of themselves and extract meaning out of trying circumstances.

For Hillary supporters, the election can come across as personal loss. “You can have grief reactions for anything important to your identity, anything that’s a part of yourself,” says George A. Bonanno, who heads the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia. While he doesn’t want to sound “too attacking” of Donald Trump, Bonanno sees Trump’s victory in a symbolic light: For lots of people, it feels like an assault on plurality, diversity, and values. “It feels like a big loss at the time, his being elected is a massive rejection of that identity,” he says. “In reality, it’s not if you think about it enough — many of the people who are Trump supporters don’t care if he’s like that, they care about some other thing, like his outsider status.”

Reframe, reappraise.

Like with other difficult life events — a breakup, a firing, and the like — one of the healthiest things you can do is tell yourself a new story. Reinterpret what happened in a way that empowers you: She wasn’t a good match for you. Your boss was a psychopath. In the case of 2016: “Okay, so it happened,” Bonanno says. “We have a fairly robust political system, it’s not going to crumble because one person is elected, and a lot of people wanted it to happen. It’s a devastating loss, a change in the political system, and we can handle it.”

Northwestern University researchers have found that people with strong mental health who care lots about others — also known as good people — tend to frame their life stories as “redemption narratives,” as tales of overcoming adversity. A Trump presidency, one might say, is such an adversity.

Avoid when you need to.

In case you haven’t realized it, endlessly refreshing Twitter is not the way to feel better about the election. “For people grieving the death of a loved one, the best thing they can do is put it out of their mind sometimes,” Bonanno says. University of California, Irvine, psychologist Roxane Cohen Silver says that, shockingly enough, from her research in how people recover from the shock of terrorist attacks, keeping CNN all day is not a good call. “A steady diet of media, repetition of the same sort of distressing stories doesn’t have psychological benefits,” she says. Go for a mind-clearing run, do yoga, watch a beloved show, party. Get away from it, at least for a while.

Find support.

When the shit hits any of the variety of life’s fans, talk to someone who shares your views and can comfort you, Silver says. It’s right there in the song: When you’re not strong, find a shoulder to lean on.

Buckle in.

While it might feel like a personal loss, an election is very different from the death of a loved one, says Silver, not least of all in the temporal sense. There’s a ton of anxiety-inducing uncertainty around what’s going to happen with the Trump White House, and there isn’t going to be much more information for a while. So instead of surrounding yourself with screens, engage with faces. “Rather than being exposed to the same story again and again, gain control of the future by engaging in actions that support one’s values,” Silver says. Engage, engage, engage. 

6 Ways to Grieve for the Election