Has Grief Led You to Apathy?

Has Grief Led You to Apathy?

Discomfort and Grief

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Harvard Business Review published an article entitled “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” In it, the author recounts a virtual meeting with fellow editors. As colleagues shared how they were feeling amid the pandemic, one used the surprising word grief to describe her feelings, prompting others (in their little videoconferencing boxes) to nod in approval. The shared, familiar feeling of blah was grief.

The article goes on in the form of an interview with David Kessler, an expert on grief. The interviewer asks, “Is it right to call some of what we’re feeling grief?” Kessler responds, “Yes, and we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. . . . The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” Kessler goes on to speak about what he calls “anticipatory grief,” which is tied to fear of the future, a dread of the unknown, and a perceived loss of safety.1 Loss, fear, change, unpredictability—these are the sources of pandemic-induced grief.

Yet, we know these feelings are not unique to times of pandemic. Grief is a normal part of life because loss is normal. In the 1960s, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed the notion that people suffering loss often pass through five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (the model has continually been refined and now contains a sixth stage—meaning). Denial has to do with going numb due to the shock of the loss. Anger is directed—rationally or irrationally—at anyone or anything involved in allowing the loss to occur. Bargaining has to do with “if only” statements and our desire to turn back the clock on our tragedy. Depression often accompanies grief, taking the form of deep sadness, emptiness, and a loss of purpose and motivation for living. Finally, acceptance is just that—accepting a new normal after the loss. It is finding new ways to reengage with life without denying the truth or pain of the loss.2

These stages—or, better, states or symptoms—of grief might be helpful in making some initial connections to apathy. Denial is numbness; bargaining keeps one anchored in the past, incapable of living well in the present; and depression often involves immobility. All of these effects are companions and even descriptors of apathy.

Grief is a normal part of life because loss is normal.

In July 1960, C. S. Lewis’s wife, Joy Davidman, died of cancer. Devastated by the loss, Lewis took to journaling his experience of grief as a way of processing his pain. In one of his heart-wrenching reflections, he writes,

No one ever told me about the laziness of grief. Except at my job—where the machine seems to run on much as usual— I loathe the slightest effort. Not only writing but even reading a letter is too much. Even shaving. What does it matter now whether my cheek is rough or smooth? They say an unhappy man wants distractions—something to take him out of himself. Only as a dog-tired man wants an extra blanket on a cold night; he’d rather lie there shivering than get up and find one.3

Grief is a motivation drain; it saps us of the drive to do both simple and meaningful tasks. The monk Evagrius personifies what he calls “sadness” as “one who dwells over loss”; he calls it “a kinsman to acedia.”4 Another monastic writer, John Cassian, views dejection as the source of acedia.5 These insights accord with those of some psychologists, who identify apathy as a typical response to grief. It may be tied to the feeling of hopelessness (that nothing else matters); may be a means of self-preservation (grief hurts, so try not to care about anything); or may be the place a person lands when he or she has spent all emotion and simply feels empty.6 Apathy can also be a sign that the process of grief has not run its course.7

Grief is about coping with loss. Gerald Sittser, an insightful guide on these issues, writes, “Loss creates a barren present, as if one were sailing on a vast sea of nothingness. Those who suffer loss live suspended between a past for which they long and a future for which they hope.”8 Like doubt, grief has the tendency to keep one suspended between two worlds and disengaged from the present. Losses can take many forms: disappointments with God; jobs lost or factories closing down; even gradual but real shifts in our cultural environment. These losses must be grieved, and part of that process may involve feelings of numbness or apathy. For example, a common experience among third-culture kids (TCKs)—those who have grown up in cultures different than their parents’ home cultures—is the feeling of unresolved grief that sometimes leads to sadness, depression, and withdrawal. TCKs often experience the “hidden” losses of their familiar world, meaningful possessions, the comfortable and quirky patterns of life, relationships, status, and a tangible connection to their past.9 These losses, as well, must be grieved because suppressed grief can lead from apathy to worse issues such as depression.

Is there something great or small you’re currently grieving? Have you processed that grief before God or other people? Is this grief making you numb?


  1. Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief,” Harvard Business Review, March 23, 2020, https://hbr.org/.
  2. For a good summary, see Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss (New York: Scribner, 2005), 7–28.
  3. C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (New York: Bantam, 1976), 3–4.
  4. “Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus”, trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  5. John Cassian, The Conferences of John Cassian V.X, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (New York: Christian Literature Co., 1894), 11:343.
  6. Apathy: When No Feeling is the Hardest of All,” Grief in Common blog, https://www.griefincommon.com/blog/.
  7. Robert Taibbi, “Six Signs of Incomplete Grief,” Psyhology Today, June 7, 2017, https:// www.psychologytoday.com/; and J. R. Averill, “Grief: Its Nature and Significance,” Psychological Bulletin 70 (1968): 722, 727.
  8. Gerald L. Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 56.
  9. David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken, Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds, rev. ed (Boston: Nicholas Brealey, 2009), 74–80.

This article is adapted from Overcoming Apathy: Gospel Hope for Those Who Struggle to Care by Uche Anizor.

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