Processing the Grief of COVID-19

A reflection on the emotional effects of a pandemic

Mike Gilliland
Future Thinkers
Published in
9 min readMar 14, 2020


Written by Mike Gilliland with contributions by Euvie Ivanova.

Many have been caught off guard by the rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re all suddenly realizing that a lot of things are about to change.

People we know are going to be affected by this virus. Businesses will tank, people we love may die, we may die, our lives may be changed forever.

COVID-19 is creating a very strong mirror for us.

It is a mirror for the fragility of our society, our systems, and us as individuals.

Many people have been descending into panic, depression, apathy, or continuing on like it’s business as usual.

Yet, others have been processing their emotions in near real-time, getting a clearer sense of the world, predicting next stages, acting proactively, and preparing.

This has been happening on individual levels as well as collective and national levels. Some countries have responded with suppression of information and a lack of action. They have downplayed the seriousness of the situation in order to reduce panic and preserve their economies. Others have been more pragmatic and proactive, taking early measures like social distancing and widespread testing.

What I’ve noticed is that countries and individuals who have experienced hardship have demonstrated a swifter and more proactive response. For example, Japan and Hong Kong learned a lot from the outbreak of SARS in 2002. This time around they were more prepared. On the other hand, countries that have lived in peace and prosperity for decades only seem to have a conceptual idea of what shit hitting-the-fan looks like.

Moments of crisis remind us of our own mortality. They make us deeply reflect on real existential questions, like:

  • How should I respond in moments of chaos?
  • What should I do when my world collapses around me?
  • How do I manage my emotions when I can’t take it anymore?
  • What depth of tragedy can I really withstand?
  • What if every map I’ve ever used is wrong?

COVID-19 is waking us up to the insufficiency of propositional knowing, or the kind of knowledge we get when we only understand something theoretically without any personal experience of it. We’re remembering the value of participatory knowing — the kind of knowledge we get by being embodied and emotionally engaged with something, the kind of knowing created through personal experience.

Participatory knowledge is lived knowledge, and lived knowledge can only be gained through participation in life (whether by choice or by force). Modern western life has not demanded much participatory knowing from us. In most areas of life, it’s been enough to get by on theoretical knowledge alone. After all, this is the ‘information age’, and anything you want to know is just a click away. We live in a world where programmers don’t have to use the applications they build, lawmakers don’t have to follow the laws they make, and psychologists don’t have to have a mental breakdown to understand their patients and do their jobs - a degree is enough.

Modern life doesn’t require us to know the territory, only to memorize the maps made by others.

The COVID-19 pandemic is showing us that this cannot continue.

It has become clear that no single expert, government body, or technology, can help us make sense of and adapt to the situation. COVID-19 has moved so quickly from a conceptual to existential threat level that most authorities have struggled to respond appropriately. For weeks and months, many couldn’t even admit to its existence, never-mind react, or execute a proactive plan. This just goes to show that we live in a culture that believes people need to be insulated from the conditions, thoughts, and emotions that make them uncomfortable.

Its not our fault that things have gone this way. Modern life has been driving us for centuries towards comfort and convenience, and distancing us from the dangers of nature. Unfortunately, it has also distanced us from the wisdom that comes from being in nature and dealing with real threats.

A culture that allows for propositional knowing to be primary, with no necessity to be in participatory knowing, is unable to adapt to real threats. The more insulated people are, the more atrophied the muscle of participatory knowing, the harder it is for them to face reality, the harder they fall, and the more damage they cause on the way down.

Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, weak men create hard times.

It’s not just culture that causes these problems, we also have a broken ecology of information. Social media algorithms feed us more of the information we pay attention to, and less of the information we don’t, creating our own biased bubble of bullshit. Tech giants aren’t beholden to the truth, they’re running a business, and our attention is the product. There’s no benefit for them in giving us the facts that we don’t want to hear, or bursting our filter bubbles. If they did, it would likely minimize time on site and hurt their bottom line. We click for fear and we click for dopamine, so that’s what they give us. Yet we rely on these tech giants to pipe in vital information about the world. Mass media is no better. The age of mass media has been a fire-hose of bad news for decades.

If you get familiar with the “7 stages of grief” model, you can see that we’re perpetually stuck in the earlier stages and that we rarely progress all the way through the cycle into acceptance. The combination of our unwillingness to face discomfort, with the 24/7 hype and fear click-baity news cycle, has repeatedly diverted us into apathy and ignorance. No wonder the response to the pandemic has been slow and inadequate.

Again, it’s not our fault that we don’t believe anything we hear anymore. What is happening now is a Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario. We’ve had so many false alarms that when a real crisis shows up, we don’t pay attention and fail to respond.

Ignoring the panic/hype cycle has become a reflex.

  • Shock: “I can’t believe this is really happening.”
  • Denial: “There’s no way we or the authorities would let it get that bad. It’s probably fake anyway. It’s just more politically motivated click-bait.”
  • Pain & guilt: Our collective identification and sympathy for Greta Thunberg
  • Anger & bargaining: Extinction rebellion
  • Depression, reflection, and loneliness: The stage that often leads young men into nihilism and destructive tendencies (The Joker, mass shootings, troll armies)
  • Apathy: “Whatever, what’s another crisis? The world is burning and there’s probably nothing I can do about it anyway, so let’s just throw it all on into the dumpster fire.”

It seems that it’s only when something truly becomes real for us (someone we know dies, our city goes on lock-down, we lose our businesses, we can’t buy stuff anymore, our life is threatened) do we really move into acceptance. And it’s only from that place of acceptance that we can act with sovereignty and sobriety

Don’t believe me?

Ask yourself some tough questions and observe how you respond to them.

What if everything I believe is false? What if my whole framework for the world is wrong? What if every map I’ve ever used has been leading me in circles? What if all my efforts, all my goals, all my plans are futile? What if I go bankrupt? What if people I care deeply about are going to die?

Notice that panic rising up in your stomach and chest? That panic, unexamined and unprocessed, is what leads civilizations to anarchy. Unprocessed emotions lead to apathy, nihilism, and revenge. This is why the Joker film resonated with so many people. Many of us know what it feels like.

I know this all sounds pretty bleak, and seems to inevitably lead to nihilism. But my point is that we won’t find the light at the end of the tunnel by bypassing the grief, panic, and existentialism of our age. We’ll get there by going directly through it.

The answer is so simple: Feel it and stay with it.

It is possible to ask these existential questions and be 100% comfortable with the answers. To detach from outcomes, accept what is, and still take positive action. It is possible to be content in the passenger seat of the car as Tyler Durden takes his hands off the wheel. Just feel it and stay with it.

Accepting a state of chaos allows us to admit that we don’t have all the answers, which allows us to finally take a real inventory of what we know, what we don’t, and what we can do about it.

Pretending we have the answers is denial. It is propositional knowing masquerading as participatory.

Can you sit comfortably in chaos?

For anyone who can hold their center as the world falls apart, this is a reason to step up. Those who can face reality and feel past the state of panic, can be quite effective at dealing with difficult times and helping to rebuild.

And by “dealing with” I don’t mean inventing solutions, or trying to “wake up society”. You can’t wake anyone up. Most people will only wake up after reality hits them square in the face. This is a “prepare to absorb impact” situation.

Absorb the blows and do what you can between them. You can work on your own resiliency and your ability to get back up. You can train. Not plan. Train.

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”- Mike Tyson

At risk of diverting the whole goal of this article from getting you to face the emotions and be with them until they’re processed (Feel it, and stay with it), to waving some glimmer of hope in front of your face so that you can avoid feeling those things, I’m going to talk about some opportunities and ideas in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic.

This pandemic has create an amazing opportunity for highlighting problems in our social, political, economical systems, and making the solutions a lot more salient.

  • Private medical systems, such as the one in the US, have unambiguously disinsentivized proactivity in the face of this threat. Simply put, if it costs money to get tested and hospitalized, people will avoid doing so and spread the disease, making the pandemic worse which puts strain on all other systems. This is the best case there’s ever been to have a socialized healthcare.
  • An economic system that can’t allow for people to stay home and self quarantine or get medical attention without going broke, or withstand periods of recession without total collapse, is one that maximizes its own fragility. This is the best case there’s ever been to institute a Universal Basic Income so that people can continue to live during periods of difficulty and change. We’ve covered this subject at length on our podcast.
  • An information system that is not built and incentivized for truth is one that causes apathy in its participants. Social media and search giants like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and YouTube connect us and filter our information about the world. But this crisis has demonstrated the fragility of a silo’d and centralized ecology of information. This is the best case there’s ever been for an proposing an open and transparent ecology of information, search, and social media. #OSSS (Open Source Search & Social-media)

This virus is a warning shot, a wake-up call, and a chance to rediscover our participatory knowing. If we can stop simply avoiding panic, and start processing our difficult emotions, maybe we can start working on solutions.

This article is written largely based on conversations in our weekly sense-making calls with Future Thinkers Members. Special thank you to Euvie, David, Heather, Eric, Maria, Jared, Daniel, and Alex.

A recent Future Thinkers podcast discussion between Euvie Ivanova and Mike Gilliland on COVID-19