Society is grieving: How can we make meaning of it? Stellenbosch Business School Skip to main content
This opinion piece was written by Prof Arnold Smit, Associate Professor of Business in Society at USB, and was used as an exclusive on Fin24

Since discovering Shire’s poem I used it as a lens on people’s experience of the current context we are in. Not a day goes by without an update on the statistics of the Coronavirus sweeping wildly through countries, communities and households. Nor can we avoid the scenes playing out in hospitals, the mourning of the bereaved and the preparation of graves for what is yet to come. Where does it hurt? Everywhere.

Exactly two weeks after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I used it to open an online workshop on values. Not only did this group of men and women associate the poem with the rising tide of anger and grief across the world, for them it ripped open their own painful memories of what apartheid did to them, their families and communities.

Where does it hurt? Everywhere.

In a workshop with a group of executives from one of South Africa’s leading retail groups, I listened in on their narratives of coming to terms with the impact of COVID-19. The initial business projections for 2020 turned into a nightmare as budgets had to be revised while doing everything possible to soften the impact for employees, suppliers, tenants and customers.

Where does it hurt? Everywhere.

Dealing with students in a remote learning environment becomes a window into their domestic challenges during lockdown. For some, job loss is already a reality. Many have to cope with work, their studies and familial responsibilities at the same time. Some had to alter their wedding arrangements while others are dealing with bereavement in their families and social networks. For many it feels like a curtain has been drawn on their future plans.

Where does it hurt? Everywhere.

Life as we were used to, has been extensively disrupted, whether we look at it from an individual, relational, organisational or societal perspective.

COVID-19 was certainly not in our script for 2020. Suddenly it has become the code word for an all-encompassing experience of change and loss sweeping through everything that previously felt familiar, comforting and even predictable. Life as we were used to, has been extensively disrupted, whether we look at it from an individual, relational, organisational or societal perspective. It will not be an overstatement to say that we are a society in grief at the moment.

It hurts everywhere.

Tough as it is, it may do us well to make to make sense of what we experience at the moment. One way of looking at it, is from the perspective of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s model of what people experience around death and dying[ii].

Although her idea of a grief cycle as such has been criticised by many, there is sensibility in the five core emotions that she identified.

  • Denial is often the first response and expressed in the assumption that something is either not true, or as bad as reported.
  • Anger represents the desire for a scapegoat, the possibility that something or someone is to blame for the challenge that you are facing.
  • Bargaining is to look for a way, some sort of compromise, to avoid or soften the impact, to be able to continue with what you were always used to.
  • Depression represents a despairing realisation that the crisis will not dissipate, that circumstances will not change, that the change is permanent and that there will be no turning back to what was before.
  • Acceptance is about embracing either the loss or the inevitable change that is going to occur, making peace with what you cannot change, and focusing on that which you can influence or have some control over.

Making the COVID-19 connection with the Kübler-Ross framework is not difficult at all. Since the start of the pandemic, and especially since the announcement of lockdown, you may have experienced some or all of these emotions as well. You may have experienced some sort of sequence, going from the one to the other as if they represented stages in your experience. You might have experienced different ones at different times depending on what kind of COVID-19 related impact you have been dealing with. You may find yourself somewhat stuck with a particular one, due to a variety of challenges you have to deal with at the same time.

Applying the Kübler-Ross framework, we may say that we experience these emotions because of grief resulting from loss: loss of future certainty, loss of employees, loss of suppliers, loss of income, loss of normal connection and socialisation, loss of life, loss of freedom, loss of dreams.

Where does it hurt? Everywhere.

So how do we make meaning of the COVID-19 challenge?  David Kessler, a world-renowned expert on grief work, co-wrote with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and added a sixth element to her framework, namely meaning. In this context meaning refers to coming to terms with and integrating the impact of the change or loss and finding new courage and direction for what may be yet to come. In discussion with a group of Harvard Business Review staff[iii], Kessler said that “acceptance is where the power lies”.

Once we have accepted what is, we can start working on a balanced approach in terms of what we think and do.

Once we have accepted what is, we can start working on a balanced approach in terms of what we think and do. We can take precaution for not getting affected, we can appreciate the things we still have access to, we can reach out to those who are sick or suffering bereavement, we can use technology to stay connected, we can share and help others as well to express the emotions that we are feeling.

It hurts everywhere. There is no use in fighting or denying it. But we can make meaning through how we deal with it. In a webinar[iv] aimed at leaders and managers in business, I shared the following guidelines:

  • Make sure that you have those things that provide the foundation of your organisation under firm control. Inasmuch as it is under your control, plan carefully, stay creative, spend wisely. You and your people need this for stability.
  • Make sure that you stay in touch with every individual, even daily if you can, so that you may know where they are, how they are, what they experience, what they can or can’t cope with. This is not just about their continued performance, but about their personal and relational wellness. They need to know and feel that you really care.
  • Do not try to talk people out of how they feel, or prescribe to them how they should feel, or sell them cheap comfort. If you do this, you only create unnecessary distance and resistance. You may have felt the same and now it is your turn to take them seriously and show them that you understand what they are going through.
  • Be prepared and available to be cared for by your team members as well. There may be times some of them may be better equipped to deal with certain emotions and experiences than you are. There may be challenges that some of them have already worked through that you still need to deal with. Allow them to be helpful.
  • Maintain the necessary safety disciplines, keep the workplace clean, make sure everyone wash their hands, wear masks, and keep the right distance. Keep the virus out; once it is in it is already too late.

It hurts everywhere. Life will never be the same again.

It hurts everywhere. Life will never be the same again. We will have to rebuild our dreams for ourselves, our communities, society and the economy. Inasmuch as we are hurting together, even if in different ways, we’ll have to learn how to rebuild together. While the pandemic, and its related effects, will leave us with an indelible collective sense of grief, it can also become the rebirth of imagination for a better, more balanced and more compassionate world.



[ii] Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-04015-9.



About the author

Prof Arnold Smit is Associate Professor of Business in Society at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. His academic work is focused on the integration of ethics, responsibility and sustainability in management education and organisational practice. He also facilitates training programmes on values-driven leadership, sustainability management and director development. Prof Smit holds a Master’s degree in Philosophy and a Doctor’s Degree in Theology from Stellenbosch University. He is also a non-executive director of The Ethics Institute, a trustee of SEED Educational Trust and the immediate past President of the Business Ethics Network of Africa.


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