IT’S A SUNNY DAY OUTSIDE. I look out the window. The way the yard behind my apartment looks — peaceful, quiet — almost makes it seem like it’s just another Wednesday morning. But it’s not. There’s a lump in my throat. It’s not a fever, or a cough. It’s something I just can’t put my finger on. It’s not anxiety; it’s something more pervasive.
The coronavirus pandemic has invaded almost every aspect of our lives, from the way we work, to the way we interact with strangers on sidewalks. The fact that nobody has any answers doesn’t help. Nobody knows how long this will last. Nobody knows if their loved ones will be safe. Nobody knows if their job is safe.
It’s a pervasive feeling, it won’t go away, and — even as someone paid to write every day — it’s impossible to characterize with words, despite my best efforts.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. In an excellent, must-read interview with the Harvard Business Review, author and leading expert on grief David Kessler argues that what we’re collectively feeling is grief. And not just one kind of grief.
Kessler’s description of that unnerving feeling hits close to home — and might just help you cope just a little bit better with a very shitty situation.
“We feel the world has changed, and it has,” Kessler told HBR. “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.”
And we’re not alone in that. “The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection,” he added, “is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”
One kind of grief we’re feeling he characterizes as “anticipatory grief,” according to Kessler, as in, when someone tests positive, or even, the concern that they will, and that their outcome may be dire. One word for that anticipatory grief is “unhealthy.” And another, he points out, is “anxiety,” physical pain that can manifest itself through grief:
“Our mind begins to show us images. […] Our goal is not to ignore those images or to try to make them go away — your mind won’t let you do that and it can be painful to try and force it. The goal is to find balance in the things you’re thinking.”
The fact that the enemy’s invisible is not helping, either, he explains, and it breaks our sense of safety.
So how do we move on? How do we process this collective grief? Rather than rattling off the stages of grief — you might be familiar with them already — Kessler suggests it’s not something that’s linear. Denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance don’t just hit you one-by-one.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do to process this unnerving feeling. “To calm yourself, you want to come into the present,” Kessler advised. “This will be familiar advice to anyone who has meditated or practiced mindfulness but people are always surprised at how prosaic this can be.”
You should also let go of what you can’t control. “What your neighbor is doing is out of your control. What is in your control is staying six feet away from them and washing your hands. Focus on that.” He also urges focusing on emotions you can control, like patience, with other people as stressed as you are. Or doing that which is within your control: Talking to people. Naming your emotions. It gives you, according to Kessler, a therapeutic sense of recognition and release:
And if it all feels like too much, talk it out. “When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you,” says Kessler. “Emotions need motion.”
” If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us,” concludes Kessler. “Then we’re not victims.”
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READ MORE: That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief [Harvard Business Review]
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