Grief Series – Part 1: What Is Grief?

Cindy Roe and Marie-Lise Baroutjian

NY Project Hope is a crisis counseling program that provides support and resources to help people cope with the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Given the pervasiveness of the Covid pandemic, people everywhere have experienced loss- and for many, multiple losses- in a wide variety of new and unexpected ways over the past year.  And while the price of any loss can include feeling distraught, overwhelmed, angry, or any other emotion that humans naturally feel and express during the grieving process, our ability to heal emotionally and move forward in our lives afterward is equally normal.  However, an important first step in order for us to get there is having a better understanding of not only our own grief relating to all that we’ve lost, but the grieving process as well.  This first installation of our 5-part series on pandemic-related grief and loss hopes to build on that understanding by exploring some themes that are common in the grief process.

Grief is the form that love takes during times of loss

cloth with painted heart shape ripped in 2What is Grief?  Grief is a natural, sometimes overwhelming emotional reaction to the loss of someone, or something, that’s important to you.  According to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, the renowned Swiss psychologist whose work first brought the topic of death-related grief into the mainstream, the swirl of emotions one feels when they’re grieving can be categorized into 5 categories: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Importantly, while Kubler-Ross first proposed that people experienced these emotions in a cyclical, stage-type manner, a large body of subsequent psychological research indicates just the opposite-that people can and typically do experience these types of feelings simultaneously, in a rather disjointed, erratic fashion.  Importantly, these feelings don’t just apply to losses in the context of death; they are also common for anyone experiencing a significant loss.

To illustrate these points, consider how we might respond to sudden news of the cancellation of an important personal milestone celebration, like a graduation or wedding.  This scenario would likely trigger feeling intensely sorrowful, angry, or being in a state of shock for the graduate or bride, which align with the depression, anger, and denial categories in Kubler-Ross’ model, respectively.  In addition to being in shock, denial of the loss can also surface in the form of struggling with believing that the news is true.  Each might say “I just can’t believe it”, or “this can’t be happening”, when they first learn that their event has to be changed, while also either rehashing (internally and/or verbally to others) what they know about the loss of their dream event, or seeking out even more information about it.  Likewise, feeling powerless over the situation, also common for those mourning an important loss, relates to the emotional category of depression that Kubler-Ross identified.  In order to temper that sense of powerlessness and regain a sense of control over the situation, acceptance and bargaining come into play, where a person mentally negotiates the terms under which they’ll accept the reality of their loss.  For instance, they might think “OK, if Covid restrictions are limiting the number of people who can come to our wedding, we’ll keep it small this time, as long as we can do it the right way later on when things get back to normal”, or “as long as I can walk in graduation and have a couple of people there in person to see me, I can deal with that”.  All told, these emotional responses serve an important function during the grieving process in that they help a person come to terms with the painful feelings and stress surrounding their loss.

Another perspective that also helps us better understand the grief process suggests that the thoughts and feelings of the bereft are oriented to the loss itself and to the business of moving on with one’s life.  According to this model, proposed by the psychologists Margaret Stroebe and Hank Shut in the early 1990’s, the mind of the grieving person switches its attention back and forth between these two orientations in rapid-fire succession.  For instance, the bride from the above example might cry and feel distraught, angry and resentful over this sudden change, then dry their tears as they make a mental checklist of all the tasks that will need to be done to successfully reschedule their wedding, then become tearfully enraged about the situation all over again.  This switching of attention is a normal reaction to the stressors inherent in important losses.  In essence, it’s a protective factor in that it allows the bereft to sit with the feelings of loss to whatever degree they can manage; when those emotions get to be too intense, the grieving person automatically turns them off by thinking again about what they need to do to move on with their life.

Check out this video from our NY Project Hope team that also helps explain how these models of grief work, and how they can help us better understand our own reactions to the losses we’ve experienced during this unprecedented time.

teens huggingRemember, grief is the form that love takes during times of loss.  The wide range of emotions and reactions people experience during grief are normal reactions to the stress that accompanies the loss of people, events, or things that are important to them.  Also, know that a lot of people are hurting right now due to the havoc that the pandemic has wrought on their lives, and that this can help us see that we’re not alone in our grieving; there are other people who understand what we’re going through and why we’re feeling the way we do.

The Crisis Counselors for NY Project Hope at Independent Living are always available to help, since sometimes it can be helpful to talk to someone you don’t know. Want to know more about how we can help?  Give us a call at 845-762-2275-talking to us is always free, voluntary, and confidential.

Visit Independent Living Inc on Facebook, Instagram, or on the web at for more blogs, tips and videos on stress management techniques and coping strategies. #iliprojecthope.

Cindy Roe and Marie-Lise Baroutjian are crisis counselors from Independent Living, Inc. working on with the NY Project Hope program.

the logo for New York Project Hope coping with covid