A Glossary for Generation Grief

A list of terms, ideas, concepts, and words for sad times

Grief is singular, but it's also unexceptional.

It can be an oppressively private experience, leaving you trapped by emotions you can’t begin to describe. Yet there may be no experience that’s more universal. We all encounter grief at some point in our lives—it’s among the most unavoidable parts of being human.

Loss is at the crux of grief, but it’s a form of loss that isn’t easily summarized; it’s too slippery, too amorphous, too inconsistent. Beyond the stigma and vulnerability of opening up about a brutal, deeply personal experience, there’s the sheer difficulty of finding the right words. We lack language for what’s unspeakable—there’s no possibility for precision, eloquence, wit.

But then grief isn’t always an individual experience. Incidents of collective grief have recurred throughout history; our century has already had its fair share. When COVID restrictions finally tapered away, we emerged from our quarantine bubbles en masse, a population of restless, anxious, out-of-shape mourners, our eyes glazed from months of Netflix, our palms raw from routine squirts of ethyl alcohol. Despite mixed feelings of relief, exhaustion, and apprehension, we oiled our rusty social graces, re-sanitized our hands and, between fits of awkward small talk, tried to process everything we’d lost.

The pervasive sadness of the assholocene

If the tally of grievances was extensive then, it’s only gotten longer. At the risk of historical solipsism, it sure feels as though we’re living through a particularly sad time, with no shortage of existential threats to keep us up at night. If something is bad right now, we can bet it's rising: sea levels, inflation, violent conflict, partisanship, unemployment, fascist populism, income inequality.

There have been jokes circulating of late about the right epithet for our current decade. An end-of-the-year The New Yorker article had some entertaining suggestions: the terrible twenties; the new dark ages; the long 2016; the assholocene. At the House, we wonder whether it wouldn’t all be better summarized under the rubric of grief. We are in an era of history defined by everything we’re losing, and our pervasive sadness marks the tenor of our times.

The silver lining amid all this doom and gloom: We’re getting a little better at talking about grief. There’s been a shift of attitude in the business world, with more and more companies initiating discussions on how to bring grief-informed practices to their workplace. The pandemic precipitated this trend. Grief accompanied us to our Zoom meetings; it blurred the line between our personal and professional lives, a merging that hasn't abated post-pandemic and, it seems, can’t be undone, either for lack of viability or volition. There’s an increasing realization that, if we spend more than a third of our waking hours at work, our workplaces must get better at supporting our feelings. They must make room for us to grieve.

We recently sat down with Joel Fariss and Jacob Simons from the global design firm Gensler to discuss Generation Grief and the myriad ways that sadness can surface at work. Joel and Jacob led a moving session on grief at our festival last year, and this conversation picked up where that one left off. It culminated in A Glossary for Generation Grief—a list of terms, ideas, concepts, and words that have helped us think about grief’s role in the contemporary workplace. These terms are here to inspire reflection on the world’s current emotional climate and let you consider how you fit into this sometimes melancholy time. The list can help you discuss grief with colleagues, managers, and friends and brainstorm ways that our employers and organizations can support the breadth of our complex selves and make new meaning in an era rife with loss.

Martha Schabas

The Glossary

Ambush grief: An unpredictable moment or incident in which a dormant grief is triggered. This incident might be seeing someone in a crowd who resembles the person you're grieving, or bumping into a mutual friend, or catching a whiff of their scent on a shirt you haven’t worn for a while. It can cause a surge of overwhelming feeling, regardless of where you happen to be.

Authentic self: A version of ourselves that feels grounded and truthful, that arises from a sense of our unique essence and convictions, and that empowers us to build our lives in accordance with it. The authentic self is a highly contested term in psychology and trauma research, with ongoing disagreement about what authenticity constitutes and how we can recognize it in ourselves.

Catered self: A false version of ourselves that we embody when we feel subject to someone else’s approval. The catered self is an act to curry favor or win allies; it’s an adapted behavior that often contradicts the authentic self.

Civilizational grief: A feeling of unremitting sadness for an understanding of humanity that is ceasing to exist. From climate change and the rise of right-wing populism to an increase of violent conflict and the threat of AI, civilization is undergoing irrevocable change, and we grieve for the world and stability we’re losing.

Climate anxiety: Acute concern or distress about climate change, often exacerbated by the lack of political progress to combat it and the fact that we continue to live as though it doesn’t pose an imminent threat.

Cognitive dissonance: An inability to reconcile conflicting ideas or behaviors, such as the threat of the polycrisis and our conscious lack of meaningful action to address it.

Collective cascading trauma: The simultaneous experience of shock and grief when a group of people are directly impacted by a tragedy.

Coping self: A veiled version of ourselves that we don when we need to repress complex feelings. In environments where emotional aloofness is the norm, we often compartmentalize difficult feelings and rely on our coping selves to get through the day. This strategy has negative consequences for both our mental health and the quality of our work.

Fuckup nights: Ironic celebrations of failure in which guests and speakers share their personal and professional tallies of disappointment and rejection.

Gen Z difference: The exceptional perspective of the rising generation, who face a very different future than what their forebears did. Gen Z suffered the most during the pandemic, deprived of social interaction during formative years. Theyre entering an inhospitable economy, with overwhelming concerns about lack of jobs and financial security. Theyre anxious about climate change and affordable housing. More than 80% of them report feeling stressed out and ¾ are looking to their employers for support.

Healing in public: A molting of the coping self. When a boss or leader allows themself to heal in public, they give a beautiful gesture of permission to their team, indicating that it’s acceptable to be vulnerable and emotional at work.

Late-stage capitalism: The current economic era, defined by the rise of advanced tech, the concentration of speculative financial capital, growing income inequality, and the rampant commodification of everything, including immaterial things, like experiences, ideas, and personalities.

Latent grief: Repressed sadness or trauma that we carry with us unknowingly.

Layoffs: In the professional world, a layoff can feel like a sudden death. They typically come without warning, and leave next-to-no time for goodbyes, let alone proper send-offs. When it happens to you, it can be financially and emotionally devastating. When it happens to a colleague, a layoff can bring acute sadness and loss.

Mental health epidemic: The rising incidence of depression, anxiety, and suicide among populations around the world.

Micro-griefs: Small incidents of loss, such as a dwindling intimacy with a colleague or the sense that a deeply admired friend has begun to drift away. Micro-griefs may seem negligible, but they can be incredibly painful, symbolizing an important relationship in demise.

Nostalgia: A melancholy yearning for a time, thing, person, or place that you no longer have access to.

Organizations as healing agents: The belief that companies are in a unique position to facilitate and support various kinds of healing and rectify the wounds of capitalism and a profit-driven world.

Polycrisis: The current cluster of related global risksclimate change, cyberterrorism, unregulated AI, political divisivenessthat have a cumulatively compounding effect.

Post-project depression: A form of micro-grief that occurs in the aftermath of a completed project. There can be a sense of loss, sadness, or anticlimax following weeks of heady, purposeful focus and exertion.

Rejection: The act of being refused, cast away, or excluded. Rejection can be directed at ourselves or at our ideas. It can comprise the loss of a vision, goal, or dream, and lead us to feel that the world isn’t manifesting the way we want it to. It can come at a great cost to our ego, self-confidence, and/or happiness.

Sacrificial guilt: The complex feelings of complicity and shame that arise when a colleague is laid off, knowing that our own job has been secured through their redundancy.

Second-hand trauma: The experience of trauma or grief by proxy. This can happen when we encounter war or violence in the news.

Sudden loss: A devastating loss that strikes suddenly and changes the fabric of our lives. Australian musician Nick Cave claimed the loss of his son altered him on an “atomic level,” rendering him unrecognizable to himself.

Super-optimized productivity: The problematic tendency to value unremitting productivity and force an optimistic take on everything. A culture of super-optimized productivity can create toxic-positivity (see below), which leads to shame, frustration, and resentment.

Tang-Ping: The act of lying flat on the floor as a way of opting out of the workaday hustle. The tang-ping movement, launched by Chinese youth and now a trend throughout East Asia, is about rejecting the false promises and rewards of a competitive, capitalist economy.

Toxic positivity: The belief that a positive outlook must be maintained, regardless of how dire or depressing the situation is. Toxic positivity rejects difficult emotions in favor of nauseatingly insincere cheerfulness.

Violation of a protocol: A public gesture of subversive behavior, typically enacted by a leader or boss, and intended to demonstrate that it’s okay to show emotion at work. This can take the form of a leader crying in public or a company hosting a public exit interview (which the House did last spring).

Vulnerability: The quality of letting ourselves and our feelings be seen.

Workplace rituals: Solemn ceremonies or activities that commemorate an event or a loss which has impacted employees, intended to foster emotional openness, vulnerability, and connection.

The glossary was written collaboratively by Joel Fariss, Tim Leberecht, Shannon Mullen O'Keefe, Martha Schabas, and Jacob Simons.


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