Grief and loss are emotions that we all experience on an individual level, and certain events may even induce shared grief among communities. Since its beginning in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it strong and unfamiliar feelings of global collective grief. To help make sense of this experience of grief, expert David Kessler has some words of wisdom that helped us cope throughout the pandemic, and are worth remembering for potential future phases of collective grief.
What is grief?
According to Kessler, grief is not a one-dimensional feeling but has many facets. We mourn the loss of the world as it was before the pandemic because we know it will never be the same, like how traveling by plane is a different experience now than it was before 9/11. We’ve lost our collective sense of normalcy and are filled with uncertainty about when we will be able to rekindle our connections or when we’ll find economic stability again.
Kessler also categorizes this overwhelming sense of uncertainty as anticipatory grief. He says that anticipatory grief centers on death and is grief that we feel when someone gets a grave diagnosis or when we remind ourselves that we’ll likely have to live through losing a parent.
In dealing with the virus, this kind of grief is confusing because our primitive mind knows something bad is happening but cannot necessarily see it, completely breaking our overall sense of safety. For humanity, because of how interconnected our world has become with the internet and the growing accessibility of international travel, this is the first time we’re collectively facing this loss of safety.
How to manage collective grief
To manage this grief, we must work to understand it. Kessler co-wrote On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, which helps clarify the stages of grief: Denial (this virus won’t affect us), anger (you’re making me stay home, and taking away my activities), bargaining (if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right?), sadness (I don’t know when this will end), and finally, acceptance (this is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed).
Acceptance is what gives us the power to control our grief and will help us move forward. He says that it’s also important to manage our anticipatory grief by not only imagining worst-case scenarios, like our parents getting sick but to find balance by encouraging ourselves to imagine the best-case scenarios.
Kessler also encourages us to be present and to think about how to let go of what we can’t control. He suggests practicing being present by simply naming five solid things in the room. There’s a lamp in the corner, a desk, a photo of your dog, a water bottle, and a coffee mug.
Though there are many strategies and helpful insights Kessler provides in his book, his ultimate advice is to allow ourselves to feel sadness, fear, and anger before we attempt to move on. We tend to try to fight off these feelings because we fear that if we let them in, they will never go away. The opposite, in fact, is true. If we give in to our emotions, we feel them, get through them, and move on to the next. Embracing these emotions and finding tangible actions to help us cope is how we will ultimately find a resolution.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our two-part series on supporting people through grief. Click here for part one, “What not to say to someone who is grieving,” and here for part two, “What to say to someone who is grieving.”