This is a response to Harvard Business Review’s interview with David Kessler.
I can see the urge to want to name this pervasive, national mood. In the case of the Harvard Business Review, they’ve opted for labeling it as grief, with the reassurance that “If we can name it, perhaps we can manage it.”
I once worked on oil tankers, where the chief engineer often (most times, to me, it seemed) said, “Don’t panic. If there is a name for what is going on, then someone else has messed up the same thing you just messed up. And more so, it’s fixable.”
We are initially scared of things we have never seen or felt before⏤ and that is normal. So, we may be inclined to name the feeling, so we can attempt to better understand it. While having a name for an issue surely means we are not the only ones, it doesn’t quite feel as though it’s that simple. At least not when it comes to how we are feeling.
We want our feelings to fit the mold or description. It is in our nature as humans to try to neatly categorize and slap a label on the feeling, so we can put it on the shelf.
I don’t think you can surmise collectively what everyone is feeling with one feeling right now. “Grief” might be the closest we can get with one single word, but it seems unnecessarily limiting. Grief doesn’t seem to tell the whole story.
I don’t think there is even a way that we know of right now to describe this brand new feeling (that is seemingly spreading over humankind faster than the virus itself) with a word that previous versions of humankind haven’t exactly been through yet. In a situation like this, the old quote from Heraclitus wrings true, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”
Though humans have been through pandemics before, and have survived to tell the tale, this is largely different. A whole globe was once relatively easily accessible to a whole species in unprecedented ways physically (through relatively quick and low cost air travel) and virtually (through social media and video conferencing). A world where a hug or a hand pound was quite literally only as far a phone call to a friend saying you needed as much. This, ironically, seems to be a major contributing reason this virus has spread so quickly relative to other viruses and pandemics.
To put simply, being able to travel your community, your nation, and your world so easily is a reason this virus exploded so fast. An equally major part of the solution is to not do any of those things, which now come so easily and naturally to humankind as a species.
Being so accustomed to something, even loving it, and then losing it, is a simple definition of grief. I would argue that in a traditional sense of grief, one grieves something or someone that isn’t absolutely essential to their survival. For example, the death of a loved one, while sad in the most extreme sense, is a loss of someone not absolutely essential to our own living.
What more is going on now is the loss of something (or somethings) that we love and that was once a pillar of our life, coupled with a myriad of known and unknown challenges also affecting our mental well-being.
Each individual is seemingly dealing with other devastations on top of that initial feeling of grieving. A loved one is already sick in the hospital, regular visits even for family, are now reduced to less-satisfying video calls. Anyone on a hospital staff now essentially works round the clock, half their time physically working and taking care of people, the other half of the time they are worried about themselves and their own family for the same reasons. Workers in the service industry and other whole industries with no way of making a living on top of the threat of getting sick coupled directly with the loneliness of not being able to see or hug someone without thinking “Will this get me or someone else sick?”
I’ve only touched upon a few scenarios, but the point I am trying to make is that this is a blend of feelings that no one has ever felt before. It is more than just grief. And it is okay, just the same, to feel this way.
Just because we can’t name the feeling by some familiar name, deal with it in conventional ways, and be done with it nice and easy, doesn’t mean it can’t eventually teach us something and make us better.
As an intelligent species that has the ability to express thoughts and emotions intelligently, this is an opportunity for our humanity to grow.
This is a new frontier that needs to be explored and expressed as such. I say this to challenge anyone who wants so desperately to say, “What you are feeling is grief, I have grieved before, you’ll get over it if you do XYZ.”
This is not just an act of going down the same path to find something that someone else has discovered. I think what is best right now is to allow everyone to accept that even the “experts” might not know exactly what to do with human emotions in this unprecedented time, where the whole world is learning how to cope with this crisis.
However you are feeling right now is not wrong, even if you aren’t feeling a bit of grief at all.
But what has proved true time and time again is that we, as humans, aren’t afraid of going to the edge of new frontiers of all sorts (mountain ranges, ocean floors, outer space, human physical and mental limits), exploring it, and coming back with new knowledge to make ourselves better. Just because it is a new and scary feeling, doesn’t mean it will get the best of us. Even if we don’t have a truly accurate word for it just yet.