Isolation on top of isolation: David Kessler on grief during the coronavirus

6 min read

David Kessler, the world’s foremost expert on death and grief, teaches people around the world how we can live fulfilled lives even in the aftermath of tragedy. He is the author of several books, most recently Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. His interview with the Harvard Business Review, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” has sparked a widespread conversation about grief and compassion during the global pandemic. We asked David to share some thoughts with us about grief, loss, and connection in the era of COVID-19.

So many people in this pandemic are going through grief, whether they know it or not. People say things like, “I don't know why I'm so sad. I don't know why I feel so heavy. Why was I crying last night?” Like I said in my HBR piece, that discomfort we're feeling is grief, and it's all around us.

Grief is a reaction to a change we didn’t want. The way the world is during COVID is certainly a change we didn’t want. The world we all knew a year ago is gone. It’s no wonder we’re grieving.

There are huge macro griefs and smaller micro ones, but it is important to realize that these are all forms of grief, and it is important to name what you are feeling. The death of a loved one is obviously the biggest loss, the biggest grief. On the other hand, someone who has a wedding postponed that they’ve been dreaming about since they were 5, someone who loses a job, even your kids who can't have their usual playdates or participate in sports—those are all losses too.

Many people think we live in a world where there is a limited amount of grief to go around. I was talking to a woman recently who was sad that she had to postpone her wedding. And I saw that she was grieving, and witnessed her grief. After she left, someone else said, I can't believe how kind you were to let her go on and on about that. Compared to the loss of a child you’ve experienced? She’s just postponing a wedding for six months! But that person didn’t understand. Her grief doesn't take away from mine. It’s not like there’s a limited amount of grief that's allocated to me and now she’s taking some of it. The world is big enough for the big and the little losses together. I encourage people not to compare, not to judge. The problem with comparing tragedies is, if you win, you lose.

I think one of the things that has confused people, besides not realizing they’re in grief, is that grief is an isolating experience even in a normal world. This really abnormal world we’re in now is also literally, physically isolating. So it’s isolation on top of isolation. Normally when you're in grief and your loved one has died, you're the center of what's going on in your community or in your group of friends and family. Now no one’s dropping over with casseroles, no one is coming to sit around your house. No one’s checking on you, or fewer people are checking on you. It’s a very different world we’re in, for people who are grieving now, because everyone else is in their own state of grief as well.

But it is important to reach out through that discomfort and pain, because the only antidote for loneliness and isolation is connection.

The pandemic has taught us a lot about staying connected and different modes of connecting. I was originally among the skeptics. I said, I don’t know that grief work is going to translate well online. Will emotions translate online? Then someone said to me, haven’t you ever been to a movie? You cry at movies; you laugh at movies. It’s virtual, but it translates. It’s the same when we talk online. It still translates. It’s still a connection.

Grief is an isolating experience even in a normal world.

– David Kessler

Caregivers and grief workers are realizing that caring doesn’t have to be physical and present. Being able to reach out a comforting hand meant so much, but there are other things that translate well.

When all of this started, I was on a 30-city book tour for my new book, and like everyone else, my plans got stopped in their tracks. Soon after, people started writing in and saying, “Oh my gosh, my grief group got canceled.” Others wrote in and said, “I can't see my loved one who’s dying.” Then it was, “I can't have a funeral.” I created a Facebook group, and I was shocked: a thousand people joined on the first day. We're finding that any connection is better than no connection. I have another grief group that does a Zoom call every weekday, five days a week. And people are amazed at how powerful it is, that sense of community and connection we have found online.

There are also certain advantages to this work becoming virtual. In my grief groups, if you are up at 3 a.m. and you pop online, there is someone awake in Australia who can talk to you. Our connections are even more far-reaching geographically now.

Online funerals have their positives, because they allow friends and family from far away to join, who may ordinarily not have been able to attend the funeral.

But other things don’t quite translate. We've all been taught the etiquette of a funeral. Then we arrived at Zoom funerals and forgot that etiquette.

My younger son died a few years ago, and when I stood in front of everyone at his funeral and saw their faces, it made my heart swell with love. But now, people in my grief groups have told me, they looked out at the Zoom faces during their loved one’s funeral, and someone's in a La-Z-Boy with a tank top on. Someone else's stapling papers at work. That’s no good.

Now I tell everyone to make sure to write in an invite to a Zoom funeral: This requires the respect, the dressing up, the dedication of time that any other funeral does. You can’t multitask this funeral. You can't casually be there. You can’t just decide to casually tune into a funeral. Oh, I forgot that funeral’s today, let me pop in. No. It’s a real thing. It means something.

Another thing that has been very hard for people in grief during the pandemic is that they haven’t been able to be with their loved ones when they die. I tell them that yes, it’s heartbreaking they missed that moment, and how horrible it was that they weren’t able to be there. And at the same time, your loved one’s death was just one single day out of their life. You were there for all the other days. And you know they died with all of your love. They didn’t die alone. All that love you gave them every day of their life, it’s still there ●

David Kessler is a renowned author, lecturer, and expert in the area of grief. His books include two co-authored with famed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on the stages of grief, as well as his most recent, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. He is the founder of, which is visited by over 5 million people a year from all over the world.