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What To Do About Our Collective Pandemic Grief Before It Overwhelms Us

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 26, 2020

For That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief, HBR’s Scott Berinato interviewed David Kessler, who he calls “the world’s foremost expert on grief”, about what we’re collectively feeling as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

HBR: People are feeling any number of things right now. Is it right to call some of what they’re feeling grief?

Kessler: Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.

HBR: You said we’re feeling more than one kind of grief?

Kessler: Yes, we’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.

And what can we start to do about our grief?

Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.

Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.

Kessler recently came out with a new book called Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.

I wrote a bit about grief a couple years back in this post How Do You Help a Grieving Friend?

One of the odd things about getting older (and hopefully wiser) is that you stop chuckling at cliches and start to acknowledge their deep truths. A recent example of this for me is “the only way out is through”. As Devine notes, in this video and her book It’s OK That You’re Not OK, there’s no shortcut for dealing with pain…you have to go through it to move past it.

See also a collection of resources for dealing with death compiled by Chrysanthe last year. (via laura olin)

Update: Trouble Focusing? Not Sleeping? You May Be Grieving by novelist R.O. Kwon:

Other people who couldn’t stay home were going to work every day — many without the option, the privilege, of doing otherwise — while here I was, home, and I couldn’t, of all things, write. Yes, there’s a pandemic, and yes, I felt by turns anxious, furious, and terrified, but it’s 2020 in America, and I’ve felt quite anxious, furious and terrified for a while. The inability to work, though, was new.

But then it occurred to me, as I ate another astringent chip, that this lassitude, the trouble focusing, the sleep difficulties, my exhaustion: Oh yes, I thought, I remember this. I was grieving. I was grieving in early March, I’m still grieving now, and chances are, you are, too.

(via @_chrysanthe)