That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief

Harvard Business Review interviewed grief expert David Kessler about the response to COVID-19:

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 911, 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.

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

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.

This resonated with me. I have felt anxious about the epidemic, but I didn’t apply the word “grief” to the feelings. I think it’s the right one.

COVID-19 will pass someday, but things will be different. We will lose friends and family. Local restaurants and businesses will close. Jobs will be lost. Relationships will end. People who can’t afford rent will leave. The poor will suffer more than the rich. All these things were happening before COVID-19, but it is a discontinuity, a society-wide shock. The dread of the uncertainty it causes is palpable.