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COVID-19 Stages of Grief

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By Leaha Hammer and Rev. Scott Alan Johnson

In 1969, On Death and Dying by Dr. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross put forward a way of thinking about grief that has become known as the 5 Stages of Grief.

Denial – Anger – Bargaining – Depression – Acceptance

Understanding grief and how it manifests in our bodies, souls, and minds can help us navigate this time of unprecedented upheaval, to say nothing of how we can help the people around us navigate it as well, particularly children and those who may not have the emotional capacity to recognize the side effects of the trauma almost all of us are experiencing on a very regular basis. 

In that vein, here are some things you should know about grief and grieving to help you understand how you feel, how those around you may feel, and how you can move through this time with as much health as possible.

1. “Stages” is a bit of a misnomer. 

The phrase “stages of grief” implies that grieving is an orderly process in which each step is completed before moving to the next. While the general direction of healthy grief is a movement toward acceptance, it is not uncommon for one who is grieving to move from stage to stage, in and out of order, particularly as the level of trauma increases or as events occur which bring that trauma to our attention. 

 Our current circumstances will be particularly difficult to navigate because many of us are experiencing trauma piling on trauma. Periods of acceptance may be followed by periods of anger or denial with what appears to be no rhyme or reason to it. This is a normal part of grief. Have faith that over time these wild gyrations will diminish, and that in the end many of us will be able to find the emotional stability that marks the majority of our lives.

2. Every loss must be grieved.

Grief comes with far more than death. Loss causes grief. Disappointment causes grief. Even a change of circumstances which would be described as better overall can cause grief because of what must be left behind. Grief is not something we can escape; it is an essential part of human existence. 

In a parenting newsletter, Katie McLaughlin writes, “Difficult feelings are tunnels, and we are the trains traveling through them.” The only way out of the grief process is through it. Try and escape too quickly and things get worse in a hurry. We are experiencing a period of intense, simultaneous trauma on several fronts: medical, academic, economic, religious, and social crises are all part of our shared reality. All losses that come with these traumas will require grief. Be kind with yourself and with others who are grieving.

3. Everyone processes grief on their own schedule.

This can be particularly disorienting for groups of people experiencing a shared loss, as many of us are experiencing at present. Grief lasts as long as it lasts. 

You may find yourself in a position where your emotional state does not match that of the people around you. You may feel acceptance while others are obviously angry or hurt, or vice versa. This doesn’t mean either one of you is “wrong”—no two people process grief at the same pace. Be at peace with your own emotions and with the emotions of others as much as you can. 

4. Unprocessed grief can lead to further trauma down the road.

Emotional trauma is an injury like any other injury—it requires time and treatment to heal properly. Shooting an injured athlete full of painkillers and sending them back onto the field is a recipe for disaster; the same is true for us when we are injured emotionally. 

As we move through this period of trauma caused by losses related to COVID-19, it is imperative that we regularly take time to examine our emotional status and to process what is happening. Athletes build strength by taxing muscles and allowing time for recovery. We build emotional strength in the same way, by experiencing our emotions and giving ourselves time to process what we’re feeling. 

Resources

The following resources can offer more help with grief in these remarkable times.

  • Mourning Hope
    Mourning Hope is an organization out of Lincoln, NE that focuses on grief.  Great resource for any student, alumni or individual struggling with any type of grief. 

About the Authors

Leaha Hammer is the Director of Student Counseling at Midland University. She has been at Midland for the past 8 years. Leaha is a Midland alum graduating in 2003 with a degree in Psychology. She earned her graduate degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Seattle Pacific University. 

The Rev. Scott Alan Johnson is the Director for Campus Ministries at Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Luther Seminary. Prior to being called to Midland in 2019, Pastor Johnson served ELCA congregations and campus ministries in Minnesota and Iowa.

Photo by Min An

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