Stuck in Grief?

By Kenneth J. Doka, M.Div., Ph.D.

Sometimes individuals share with me that they or someone they know are “stuck in grief.” Yet, I always wonder what individuals mean when they say “stuck in grief.” Sometimes when I think of someone stuck in grief, I know they are having a more complicated reaction to grief. Here the person seems to have a chronic, persistent, and prolonged grief reaction. Sarah was like that. She was an older woman who was grieving the loss of an adult daughter who shared her home. When she came to see me, she was extremely emotional—often breaking down in tears. At first, given the rawness of Sarah’s reaction, I thought the death was very recent. Later as she continued to share her story, I realized that the death occurred over seven years ago.

In other cases, it may seem like an individual makes a choice to be “stuck in grief.”Jenny seemed like such a person. She was in counseling since her husband died. They had been married for over twenty years. Jenny was beginning to make progress when she decided to terminate counseling. Her reason was puzzling. She had felt that she had made considerable progress but that if she would return to the happiness she had before her husband’s death, it would seem that their relationship was meaningless. Certainly, it might seem that Jenny chooses to be stuck in grief.

Some may continue to grieve because they sense some form of secondary benefit in being seen as lost in grief. Harry was like that. Once his wife died, he felt little attention from his daughters who lived nearby—actively raising their own children. However, whenever Henry called them, sounding tearful and depressed, they dropped everything to console him. In counseling, I suggested they reward other behaviors. Soon they were invited him to watch their kids play soccer and basketball or join them for a quick meal at a local fast-food restaurant. The effect was amazing as Harry began to resume a deep interest in his grandchildren’s activities—enjoying their time together.

Sometimes, we may think someone is stuck when in fact; they are just following the norms of their culture. For all the time I knew my Hispanic grandmother, she always wore black. Yet she was not mired in her grief. It was just that in her culture, widows should dress in black no matter how many years had passed. My grandmother fully enjoyed life. Black was simply a fashion choice honoring her late husband.

Finally, you may think someone is stuck when they (or you) are simply going through grief. The grief journey is both long and full of struggles—times that grief surges. It is easy to become impatient with self or others when that person does not seem to follow some sort of artificial script or timetable for grief.

So there are many circumstances and reasons that someone may seem stuck in grief. If you think you—or someone you love—is stuck in grief, it might be worthwhile to suggest or visit a counselor. They can not only assess the ways individuals are grieving but if they are “stuck” help them find their way as they continue their journey with grief.

Kenneth J. Doka, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology and counseling at the College of New Rochelle, a senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, and the author of Grief is a Journey.

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