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Grief and Loss: Understanding the Process

There are commonalties and differences in how we accept loss.

This is part 1 in a series on Grief and COVID-19.

Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. Part 4 is here.

This post was written by Betsy Gard, Ph.D.

Three years ago, on a sunny October Sunday morning, my husband and I were getting ready to watch a movie and relax after a hectic weekend. As I prepared the TV, I heard a heavy thud in the bathroom. I ran and saw him lying on the floor, unconscious.

Despite the speed of the ambulance, the ministrations of the Emergency Room Physicians, and my own disbelief, my husband died.

I did not say my good-byes or have the opportunity to know what he wanted or needed in those last minutes.

I am reminded often of the horror, shock, and disbelief I experienced in the hours, days, weeks, and months following his death.

Kat Jayne/Pexels
Source: Kat Jayne/Pexels

Family members whose loved ones have died of COVID also experience the terrible loneliness of trying to put together a life in the absence of someone who had been part of the fabric of their lives.

Like my husband, they died alone, without loved ones present in those last moments.

Each loss in our lives is different and brings up unique challenges and pain. The loss of a parent is different than the loss of a child; the loss of a spouse is different than the loss of a sibling.

Yet, we must place that loss within the personal context of our own lives. While grief is universal, the specific pain is individual: what the loss means to us, how we mourn, the regrets we may have, the emptiness left.

Research on grief
Research by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has been extremely influential in the ways we often think of the stages of mourning a death.

Recent research helps us understand that a number of factors are associated with potentially creating complicated grief and loss. These challenges can mediate how each individual is affected by their loss.

Factors that can increase the grieving process include the unexpectedness of the loss, financial hardships as a result of the loss, and low social support.

It's not stages as much as fluctuations

The idea that grief and loss occur in discrete stages does not fit the experience of many undergoing loss and grief.

Rather, those experiencing the loss vacillate and repeatedly re-experience the circumstances around the death, as well as periods of numbness, disorganization, yearning for the past, and intense pain.

Over time, the mourner will have fewer periods of intense preoccupation and begin to put the loss in some form of perspective that helps put the pain into a context of meaning.

The mourner can invest increasing energy in reconnecting to activities and people who are important in their lives and begin to experience more times that are neutral or even bring joy.

Unfortunately, we do not escape from this life without loss and pain. We can, however, understand and accept the waves of grief we experience.

We can keep ourselves moving forward as we work to put together a renewed life and come to living in the world without that special person.

Betsy Gard
Source: Betsy Gard

Betsy Gard, Ph.D.

Dr. Gard is an Adjunct Professor at the Emory University Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. She has worked with the Red Cross in disaster response and is both a Trainer and a Facilitator for resiliency programs to the military and their families.

Dr. Gard has traveled internationally to provide consultation to communities that have experienced trauma. She provided mental health consultation with the International Rescue Committee to assist staff with refugees and immigrants.

Dr. Gard has a private practice with specialties in trauma work, adopted children, families, and couples. She is a past-president of the Georgia Psychological Association and an active board member in the Georgia Psychological Foundation.


Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. (1997) On Death and Dying. Scribner Publishing.

Parkes C. M. & Prigerson, H.G. (2010). Bereavement: Studies of grief in adult life-4th Edit. Penguin Publishing.

Van Der Houwen, K., Stroebe, M., Schut, Hl, Stroebe, W, Schut, H., & Van Den Bout J. (2010). Mediating processes in bereavement: The role of rumination, threatening grief interpretations, and deliberate grief avoidance. Social Science & Medicine. 71:1669-76.

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