Feeling stuck in our grief is something many of us who have lost a loved one have experienced. Struggling under the crushing hopelessness of daily life, feeling trapped in a world in which we are unable to process our loss or build any momentum for the future – life can feel bleak and heavy. As our motivation to grasp and reshape our lives ebbs away and is replaced by a crippling sorrow, we might find ourselves more irritable, more irrational and more prone to overreaction. It may affect our ability to do our job, to parent our children and to hold relationships with those closest to us. However, whilst this can feel debilitating, it need not be permanent.
In this blog, I will explain that whilst feeling stuck in grief is a natural part of the grieving process, there are ways in which you can release yourself from this inertia and create movement in your journey. I will explain how developing acceptance, lowering expectations, avoiding unhelpful comparisons with others and embracing self-compassion can help to steer you through these feelings. Although it is often hard to summon the energy to work through our emotions, we cannot abdicate responsibility for our grief. It is ours and it falls to us to tend to it. And sometimes, we will find that it is in our darkest moments, during the hardest part of our journey, that we learn the most about ourselves.
Through my own experience with loss and my own research and learning, I have come to understand that feeling stuck in grief often stems from unrealistic expectations we place upon ourselves around where we should be in our grief journey. This can be accompanied by a self-imposed shame, in which we reprimand ourselves for not being further along in our journey or for not grieving in a more productive way.
When we lose someone we love, we often subconsciously set expectations in our own minds of how long our grief will last and how long it will take before we start to feel better. We long to feel lighter and happier, to feel less overwhelmed and more in control and sometimes creating a timeline to chart our course to that point of relief becomes a natural coping mechanism. However, when we reach that milestone moment, that 6 months, year or two years and we find ourselves still entrenched in sadness and pain – that dawning realisation that we were mistaken, can hit us so hard. As we start to realise grief is something that isn’t just going to disappear, that it’s something we have to live with, we start to feel stuck and this turns to guilt and shame as we rebuke ourselves for being where we are and for not having progressed further.
However, it’s important to remember that there is no one ‘textbook’ way to grieve, to overcome loss and to move forward with your life. Everyone’s experience with grief is different and so their timelines and reactions to it will also differ. Just because you are not where you feel you should be, just because you expect to feel differently and worry that you have fallen behind in your journey doesn’t mean that you have failed and that you’ve not made enormous strides in your grief journey. Ask yourselves this: who said you have to be further along? Who said you are behind in your grief? And who said you should be feeling differently? This is simply a narrative that you’ve created. It doesn’t make it true.
Whilst it’s natural to look forward during grief, to a future filled with less pain and heartache, it’s just as important, when feeling stuck, to look back and reflect on how far you have come. Whilst I don’t recommend dwelling on the past or pining for it, it can be a useful place of reference, as it can encourage you to acknowledge and celebrate how far you have travelled, how much you have grown and how incredibly capable you are.
You are where you are in your grief. And that’s ok. You are right where you need to be. Don’t berate yourself for not being further along in your journey, for if you do, you may find yourself stuck in a challenging space, in between where you are and where you long to be, endlessly questioning when and how you will get there and punishing yourself for not getting there quickly enough.
Try instead if you can, to remove self-judgement, establish a kinder internal dialogue and take the time to reflect on how far you have come. You may then find that you are better able to release yourself from your feelings and more easily navigate the space you’re in.
When we feel stuck in our grief it’s important that we learn to lower our expectations of where we should be and what we should be doing. Being in our grief space and thinking about our loss does not mean we are actually stuck. It doesn’t mean we’re going backwards, that we’re bad at grieving or that we’ll never move forward. Grief is like an enormous roller coaster ride, with huge highs and lows. It’s important to adjust our expectations and understand that although there will be times when we feel submerged in our grief, swamped by our emotions and incapable of moving forward, in reality, there will be other times when we find ourselves switching off from our feelings and distracting ourselves from our pain as we try and get on with daily life.
During the mid-1990s, Margaret Stroebe and Henk Schut established a bereavement model called the ‘dual process’ model of grief. The theory explains how during grief, people behave in two different ways: loss-oriented and restoration-oriented. Loss-oriented behaviour might involve thoughts and actions that relate to your grief and pain and encourage you to focus on it, such as looking through old photographs, thinking about your loved one, listening to a piece of music that evokes a particular memory. Restoration-oriented behaviour in contrast, might involve you engaging in everyday tasks such as cleaning, shopping, work, exercising or watching television, which allow you to focus on your new normal, adjust to what your life is like now and distract yourself from your grief.
Stroebe and Schut believe that people oscillate between these two different modes throughout their grief journey and that this is a helpful and healthy way of dealing with loss, as it encourages them to take a break from the intensity of their grief and work through their loss in a more gentle and gradual way.
So if we reframe our expectations and think of grief in these terms, as a continual oscillation between sitting with our grief and focusing on our new life, we can see that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that despite feeling stuck, there is in fact, continual movement.
Although it is natural to compare where you are in your grief journey to where others are in theirs, it is ultimately futile, for grief is subjective. It is a hugely personal physical and emotional reaction to loss. When you meet others who have experienced loss and they’re eighteen months into their journey and seemingly have their life together, it’s natural to wonder why at two years in, you are not doing as well. However comparing your grief experience and ability to recover from grief with other people’s is dangerous, as you have little understanding of the nature of their loss, the intensity of their grief, the support systems they have available to them, or their own inherent capabilities, all of which could differ wildly from your own.
Equally as damaging, is comparing your current pain and feelings of stagnation with your old life – how you used to feel and what you used to be capable of. When you grieve, your familiar world, your place of comfort and of certainty is replaced by heartache, shock, fear and often a loss of control. Not only is your life completely different but your priorities and what you are capable of are also likely to have changed. Whilst before, a productive day might have involved working a full day, cooking a family meal, finding time to exercise and having some down time, when you are grieving just getting out of bed and showering is an enormous win. What that looks like to anyone else is immaterial. What that means to you is more important and is what you need to focus on. Your past as you knew it is gone and whilst it is important to reflect on it and learn from it as you honour your loved one, allowing yourself to reside there will compound both your suffering and your inertia. Use the past simply as a marker of how far you have come on your grief journey, how much you have achieved and as an opportunity to celebrate how strong and amazing you are.
Although it’s natural to let your mind drift and think about a time when your grief won’t weigh as heavily on you, when your days will feel brighter and you will feel more balanced and in control, grief cannot be hurried. You can’t speed up the process and get to where you want to be through sheer will alone. When we feel stuck, there is a sense of permanence that accompanies it. We feel like we will never escape it and that we will be forever trapped, unable to move out of our grief and build the future we desire and so we often end up criticising ourselves, judging our actions or inaction and blaming ourselves. By just accepting where we are in our journey and making our peace with it, by acknowledging how far we have come, we learn to be kinder to ourselves and in doing so will release ourselves from the bonds that we have imposed.
We live in a busy world, a world in which our lives are full and we barely have any time for ourselves. We continually encounter demands from work, friends, parents and children and more often than not our needs and desires rapidly fall to the bottom of the pile, as we prioritise and respond to others. Self-care during grief is vital. It’s really non-negotiable. We have to learn to care for ourselves on a much deeper level; not just physically but emotionally. We need to take time to tend to our needs; whether that be speaking kindly to ourselves, allowing ourselves downtime in which to meditate, or having a bath. Switching off and doing whatever we need to do to restore our balance, focus and energy is imperative. For if we choose to neglect ourselves, if we consciously decide not to prioritise our own needs, we will continue to feel trapped, to feel exhausted and incapable of working through our grief. Nothing will get done and we will ultimately be no good to anyone. So, when you feel stuck and fixed in your grief, think of it as an invitation to love yourself that little bit harder.
When we grieve we are often faced with uncertainty, new challenges and difficult questions and as we seek to address these, we might find ourselves overthinking things and continually working through hypotheses and potential scenarios. We may even start to catastrophise. During the depths of our despair, it is easy to allow our minds to slip into overdrive and start to think irrationally of all the things that could go terribly wrong and how awful our lives would become. This vicious, chaotic cycle can prevent us from feeling safe, from feeling in control and from grieving productively. It’s so important therefore, when you feel your mind spiralling, to take action that will encourage it to rest. This can be hard, but it’s something that can consciously be worked on. It may be that active meditation or a walk in nature helps to calm your mind. It may simply be that having a shower or a bath cleanses and quietens your thoughts. Whatever it is that allows your mind to be still, indulge in it, because often it is in that stillness that you will find what it is that you need, to take those steps forward. Until we learn to switch off from our busy internal narrative that tells us that we are the problem, that we are a burden and that we should be doing things better, we will continue to feel trapped.
Grief requires work. Time alone does not heal all wounds. Physical ones perhaps, but not wounds of the heart. They require our focus and attention. And they require our compassion. Surrounding ourselves with people who know, love and want the best for us, is one way of tending to our feelings. Seeking support from a group of like-minded people, who have been through what you’re going through now, who understand how you’re feeling, can help to drive you forward. Not everyone you thought would show up for you will do so, but there are plenty of others out there - people already in your life and those you are yet to meet, who will treat you with the kindness you deserve and the compassion you need.
Feeling stuck is a very normal part of the grieving process, but it need not be permanent. There are measures that you can take to alleviate these feelings. By taking responsibility for what it is that’s keeping you stuck (your narrative, comparisons, expectations and choices,) by identifying your needs and meeting these with an abundance of kindness and self-compassion, by leaning into the lows and embracing the highs, you can start to move towards a brighter and more fulfilling future.