Suffering severe post-election grief? Here’s how to recover

man grieving
Grieving after the loss of a favourite political candidate is natural.
Photo credit: Photo | Pool

What you need to know:

  • Grief and depression are very common after the election loss of a favourite political candidate
  • It is important to stay away from sources of mockery and bullying, such as social media sites
  • A positive attitude will go a long way towards helping you heal and adjust to your new leaders

For years, Silas Gisiora Nyanchwani, author of the book Man About Town, has publicly been a supporter of former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. In the 2022 General Elections, he was hopeful Mr Odinga would finally clinch the coveted prize.

The declaration by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission that Mr Odinga had lost to Dr. William Ruto hit hard.

“20 years of voting where your vote doesn't count is not an easy pill to swallow. It never will (be). Something inside you dies. We are hurt, but we will be fine,” he said. Mr Nyanchwani then shared how he copes with grief such as the one he had just experienced.

“How do I cope with loss? I accept immediately. I think I am among the few people who accept what fate serves me instantly,” he said. Mr Nyanchwani shared that there is a small lapse of time for mourning or thinking about it, but he generally moves forward as soon as possible.

“I play a lot of Hov (rapper Jay–Z). Once I play Lost One, it means the first step of acceptance is done. And sad rock music. Then I immerse myself in gloomy works. I re-read Michael Houllebecq and those sad existentialist German and French philosophers,” he said.

Like Mr Nyanchwani, millions of voters and thousands of contenders have found themselves in the heartbreaking position of electoral loss. There are some who have mastered their way of coping with loss and others who are lost on what to do. If the grief is severe, here are a few steps one can take:

Stages of grief

According to grief therapist Benyamin Cirlin, there are three tasks that will set you on the path to recovery after an electoral loss.

These include coming to terms with reality (understanding and accepting the state of things); understanding what, specifically, made you feel angry or upset at the outcome (maybe you or your friends belong to a group you fear may be discriminated against); and, figuring out how this election loss has changed you.

The process

Nairobi-based psychologist Ken Munyua says that overcoming post-election grief will be a process. “Transitioning from the shock of loss to normalcy will not happen overnight,” he says. “It will largely depend on your resilience and the ability to accept the outcome.”

He explains that the failure to accept loss is one of the reasons why a contender may continue to present themselves in electoral contests every election cycle even where they have zero chances of success. “The denial of the outcome and the internalisation of the delusion that you can actualise victory can perpetually keep you in a state of contest and prolonged bitterness,” he says.

The proverbial stages

You might find recovery from election grief more complex than the five proverbial stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

According to Dr. Ryan Martin, a psychologist and researcher on anger, this is because the experience of grief and anger is more complex than the sequence of these stages.

“In the election context, policy changes yet to come will affect you in potentially negative ways. Those consequences (losses) have yet to be experienced but, when they do, people will likely feel a range of grief-related emotions all over again,” he says.

Mourning and bitterness

Depression is prolonged stress. Mourning an election loss can quickly degenerate into depression if it is prolonged.

For instance, you can easily feel hopeless, angry and bitter if you had financially invested in a candidate in hope of getting jobs or tenders, or if you had taken loans to fund your campaign in hope that you would recoup the money plus profit from a political office.

“Ask yourself what makes you angry. Is it because your candidate never won? Is it because you were financially or emotionally invested in the election?” says Mr Munyua.

He also reckons that with post-election grief, you might exhibit bitterness in various ways. “You may get bitter at people close to you including family and friends, or even the political leadership and support base that defeated you,” he says.

Moving forward

Contested democratic elections will always produce two sides: winners and losers. If you find yourself on the losing side, it is important to establish the alternative that you can offer.

“Elections end up with both a majority and a minority, even with the slightest of margins. If you’re in the minority, what alternative can you offer? For instance, can you offer oversight, checks and balances to the winners?” says Mr Munyua.

According to psychologist and author of the Confidence Game Maria Konnikova, accepting grief and then figuring out how to move on can help you build resilience. “People who have built up the psychological trait of resilience are quicker to bounce back from a loss. They're able to cope with stress or tough situations that others succumb to,” she says.

This is echoed by Ruth Konigsberg, the author of The Truth About Grief: The Myth of its Five Stages and the New Science of Loss. “Just the knowledge that your survival instinct is strong, and that a great many have not only endured terrible losses but have also thrived, can be your source of hope and recovery," she says.

Social media

There are thousands of posts, jokes, mockery and memes about the election results on social media. These can cause you outbursts of anger or even send you into stress and depression.

Mr Munyua recommends that you block political and non-political cyber bullies if you can’t stomach their posts. “Avoid online (and offline) arguments as these will peel off the wound. Embrace positivity and do the things that excite you,” he says.

With social media, you have the option of tuning out of depressive posts while staying online. Use these options for your sanity's sake.

Learning and growing

Instead of conceptualising the electoral loss as traumatic, attempt to see it as an opportunity to learn and grow. “Events are not traumatic until we experience them as traumatic,” says clinical psychologist George Bonanno.

Start seeing the loss as a potentially traumatic event, and think of how you can convert it into positivity.

Bonanno gives the example of the loss of a close friend. “You might be sad if you suddenly lose a close friend. But if you can find a way to construe that loss event as filled with meaning—perhaps it leads to greater awareness of a certain disease, say, or to closer ties with the community—then it may not be as extensively traumatic,” he says.