[OPINION] Embracing grief, avoiding toxic positivity

Jayeel Cornelio
[OPINION] Embracing grief, avoiding toxic positivity
'Expecting people to be consistently productive in an anxious moment such as this is tyrannical'

The new normal is about loss. And it comes in all forms. 

Economic recession and unemployment are tangible experiences from which even middle class Filipinos are no longer safe. Economic projections predict job losses and business closures. Without government intervention, small businesses do not have a fighting chance.

For an increasing number of Filipinos, the new normal is much worse. It is about the loss of loved ones for whom they did not even have a chance to grieve properly. The virus will end but the dead will not come back to life.

The reality of loss is why social media has become a space for agonizing. The emotion palpable across all platforms is grief.

Whether we admit it or not, anger, helplessness, and anxiety are emotions that intersect with one another these days. They are all connected to grief and the inability of people to cope with the irreversible turn of events.

The conflation is to be expected. The virus spreads and death is close. In the air is the uncertainty of the future. And to make matters worse, our national leaders, in lieu of comfort, offer us threats.

Coping mechanisms

Because many of us do not know how to deal with this confusion, we turn to different coping mechanisms. 

TikTok might be one of them.  Vice Ganda singing “Corona bye bye na” is another. And then there are motivational speakers who tell us there’s a reason for everything. 

The amusement they bring is not necessarily bad. Coping mechanisms help us cope. 

But a thin line exists between inspiration and toxic positivity. 

Convincing ourselves to always look at the bright side is not only fantasy. For forcing us to deny our emotional dispositions, toxic positivity is also a form of tyranny. 

Unfortunately, the pressure to pretend that we can lead normal lives only worsens it. Working from home is an unusual setup for many of us. Students and employees are expected to make the most of the quarantine by being productive. But expecting people to be consistently productive in an anxious moment such as this is tyrannical. 

This atmosphere that compels us to be okay is ultimately not okay. It assumes that negative emotions and thoughts must be denied. 

Embracing grief

But psychologists reject this idea. 

Instead they affirm the need to develop “habitual acceptance.” It involves a process of accepting negative thoughts without judging them. Gradually, this process can improve one’s wellbeing. 

To habitually accept one’s negative thoughts is an important reminder for many of us who have to deal with the reality of loss. This is why grieving is a process that needs to be embraced. 

Indeed, the only way for a person to move on is to come to terms with the new normal.

But there is so much more to grieving than moving on. From the point of sociology, grief is a powerful emotion that can bring us together.

For one, grief, when shared, diffuses pain. To feel that one is not alone is in itself a comforting experience. 

Unfortunately, the tragedy of our current situation is that we cannot even open our arms and offer embrace. That the enemy is unseen has rendered us suspicious of one another. 

And so given our current limitations, every opportunity to be present for another person matters. A message, a prayer, a pangangamusta — they all matter.

Speaking truth to power

Grief has a liberating potential too. Recognizing that grief needs to be shared is essential for all of us to collectively confront our suffering. 

This is because a crisis such as COVID-19 affects all of us in significant ways whether in the form of joblessness or the death of a loved one. Thus the call is for all of us to grieve with one another.

That we all suffer is the reality that the thoughtless and callous words of the privileged about the working class fail to see. That Harry Roque tells Filipinos we should all be ashamed for being undisciplined is in itself a shame.

Grief, when shared with one another, compels us to ask if all these losses could have been avoided in the first place. Collective grief is a potent force that mobilizes all of us. Collectively, we can question the status quo and hold our leaders accountable.


The days ahead remain uncertain and many people will have to face the reality of hardship. To date our national leaders are more invested in passing on the blame to the public.

In this sense we are left alone.

And so at this point, to grieve cannot just be about moving on. 

To grieve as a people is to be angry about our state of affairs in which everyone has become a victim of arrogant men in power. 

To date, no one has been held accountable and those who do their jobs in the end lose them. Health workers are getting sick and the health care system is ill-equipped. 

How did we get here? Why did we not prepare long enough? And why do ordinary citizens get blamed for the failure of leadership? 

When people come together, grief and anger are potent emotions that speak truth to power. The toxic positivity that romanticizes our frontliners does not compare. – Rappler.com

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is the Director of the Development Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University and an Outstanding Young Scientist of the National Academy of Science and Technology. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.


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