Professor Michael Cholbi on Understanding Grief and Death in the Age of COVID-19

  September 08, 2021   News ID 3930
Professor Michael Cholbi on Understanding Grief and Death in the Age of COVID-19
COVID-19 regardless of the existing disputes of its origin and nature has proved to be a real challenge to human world as a whole. This virus killed indiscriminately and still kills many in those countries that have failed to contain the virus. Grieving for the loved ones has changed due to the new conditions. What does this new mode of grief mean?

Coronavirus has changed our human perspective of life and world. It created numerous problems for all nations across the world from the richest to the poorest. Though there are still many scholars around the globe who insist on the conspiracy theory, the medical experts and virologists prefer to focus on their professional studies of the possible ways of containing this disasterous pathogenic phenomenon whose countless variations emerge on daily base through sophisticated mutations. Anyway, aside from these scientific and medical discussions of the COVID-19 crisis, people across the world have suffered a lot during the pandemics either as a result of the contraction of the virus and the health consequences or due to the loss of a loved one. Grief and death had been two ruling phenomena since 2019 and they continue to haunt us as everyday we are exposed to the updates of the Coronavirus deathtoll in the world. The third world countries have suffered even more damages due to their lower scientific and technological status. There are even countries like Iran and North Korea whose people are being systematically deprived of the vaccine and medicine based on political tensions. Such nations experience harder times when the ordinary people who do not have any sense of the complicated equations of politics see their loved ones lose their lives due to the inaccessibility of the essential medical care and vaccine. To understand the current human situation in terms of grief and death, SAEDNEWS is honored to host Professor Michael Cholbi the distinguished philosopher of grief and death from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland:


SAEDNEWS: Is grieving enough for coping with the great loss of the death of our loved ones on daily basis?

Professor Michael Cholbi: Grief is a difficult experience – in fact, it can be among the most stressful events in our lives. Occasionally, people even die due to grief! But it's also a powerful tool for dealing with the deaths of those who matter to us. Much of what we experience in grief feels bad; we typically feel sad, but people are also known to undergo other 'negative' emotions in the course of grief, such as guilt, confusion, or resentment.

These emotions serve to alert us to a crisis in our relationship with the deceased person for whom we grieve; we can't continue to relate to them as we did when they were alive, and they cannot continue to play the same role in our lives as they did before. Grief is also deeply informative about how we can live without the deceased. The emotions we undergo tell us a great deal about our relationship with them and how they mattered to us.

Grief is thus critical to our ability to live well after another's death – not by forgetting or "moving on" but by living a life that incorporates the deceased person into our lives. Sometimes grief won't be enough on its own to cope with these losses. But I'm confident that we couldn't cope with these losses without our capacity to grieve.

SAEDNEWS: Does grieving add anything to our existential character and does it make us more human?

Professor Michael Cholbi: I argue in my book that grief in fact represents human nature at its best. It shows that we can respond rationally to threats to what we care about and adapt our values and goals accordingly. To use a metaphor: When others' deaths threaten the house we live in, grief allows us to repair, strengthen, and even re-design that house to address that threat. Some philosophers (especially in ancient times) did not share this view. They viewed grief as a bit shameful – as something to be tolerated at most. This was because they viewed the virtuous life as self-sufficient rather than one in which we are dependent on other people. But since (in my estimation), our social nature is inescapable, we should view grief as a valuable resource for allowing us to live vulnerable lives that we share with vulnerable others.


SAEDNEWS: Does the mode of understanding of grief make any difference to the grief itself?

Professor Michael Cholbi: Our attitudes toward grief have many sources. It's a popular subject in art, , music, and film, for example, and 'grief memoirs' are now a very popular literary genre. My own research on the topic has been motivated by the conviction that understanding grief in a philosophical way – as, in many respects, a certain kind of philosophical challenge we face in life – will allow us to approach it without fear and to put grief to its best use in enabling us to leave satisfying and meaningful lives.

SAEDNEWS: What is the greatest contribution of the COVID-19 to the contemporary discourse of grief?

Professor Michael Cholbi: First, the large number of deaths has made us acutely aware of our susceptibility to grief. And Covid deaths are unusual relative to our cultural expectations and medical norms – they happen rapidly rather than slowly (as in cancer) and require isolation from others. Second, Covid has also exposed ways in which our societies are perhaps unprepared for the waves of grief that come with a pandemic. Many communities found themselves with insufficient places to store the remains of those killed by Covid, and many had to resort to methods of disposing bodies that are very much at odds with the values of those in those communities. (The open air cremations in India are probably the most vivid example of this.)

SAEDNEWS: Will we have a different perspective of death and grief in post-COVID world? What would it be like?

Professor Michael Cholbi: I'm not big into 'silverlining-ism' – that Covid is somehow a good thing on balance. That said, we should learn what we can from our collective experience of Covid. Among the things I hope we can learn is to re-learn our relationships to our own bodies. Covid has reminded us that human bodies are fragile but also (ironically) dangerous. The Covid-infected person is, in effect, a kind of biohazard. I'd also hope that the pandemic will help us appreciate how death and mortality are the great unifier. They are among the few things we all have in common, and it's ideal if that fact can be a source of social solidarity rather than divisiveness.

SAEDNEWS: How can we philosophically convince people that other people's grief matter and we have to care about it?

Professor Michael Cholbi: For the most part , people don't need convincing. Most everyone understands that other's grief matters. I think the deeper challenge is knowing how to care about it – what the needs of grieving people really are and how we can meet them. This is an important societal and interpersonal matter. And of course, we also need to have a rich understanding of our own grief experiences and needs in order to communicate our needs to others.

SAEDNEWS: Is there any philosopher whose philosophy has proved these days to be more helpful in understanding our fragile human conditions?

Professor Michael Cholbi: Aside from me? One philosopher who shaped my thinking on these matters is Martha Nussbaum. Among contemporary philosophers, she has probably done the most to draw attention to the importance of uncertainty and insecurity in human life. Much of philosophy aims to create greater certainty and security, and we should not neglect the value of those. But even the happiest human life (or the most just human society, etc.) contains some measure or uncertainty and insecurity. Nussbaum has done a lot to remind us of these realities and to extract philosophical questions from those realities.

SAEDNEWS: As a philosopher of grief and death, what is your suggestion to the grieving people of the third world who are easily neglected by world powers who deprive them of vaccine? Does philosophy have anything to do with this real and tangible situation called human daily life?

Professor Michael Cholbi: You should be angry about the unjust distribution of vaccines in the world. Philosophy can give you the tools to diagnose and express that anger!