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Complicated Grief: How to Get Unstuck

shutterstock_143210572All grief is painful, and it never feels simple.  But complicated grief is its own category: It’s when time is moving on, but you’re not; the loss and sadness won’t let go.  Maybe it still doesn’t even feel real to you, no matter how much time has passed.

Here are some thoughts on how to begin to pull out of the quicksand.

1)  Recognize that no matter how unthinkable the loss is, healing is still possible.

You might be so deep in it that you can’t quite believe that.  But do your best to believe that others have felt equivalent losses, and they have begun to recover.  That’s why grief support groups are so valuable.  You can see examples of people in various stages of healing.  There’s hope in that.  There’s even camaraderie in it.  You’re all survivors of the same war, in a sense. That can be a bond for life.

And if the idea of getting in a room full of strangers and telling your story makes you recoil, believe that many others in that room felt the same way when they first got there.  They kept coming back, and they got better.

2)  Understand that your love for a person is not negated by your recovery.

Many people hold on tightly to their pain, as if it’s the bond to the one they’ve lost.  On some level, they feel that moving on is disloyal; it says that the person lost wasn’t truly loved.

The truth is, that person can never be replaced.  But his/her value is not determined by the length and intensity of your suffering.  Ceasing to live out of solidarity with the dead benefits no one.  If that’s what you’ve been doing subconsciously, make it explicit; recognize what your loved one would actually want for you.

3)  Begin to explore what’s keeping you stuck.

Is it the relationship itself?  Sometimes it’s much easier to move on from a relationship that was loving and supportive than one that was tormented.  In the latter case, people might feel guilt and shame, believe that they should have done more to repair it, or be grieving for the relationship they wish they had rather than the one they did (for example, when an abusive parent has died.

Is it about the traits of the person that you think you’ll never encounter again?

Is it about your fears of abandonment and rejection?

Is it the way this loss connects to others you’ve experienced, in a painful domino effect?

Is it the circumstances of the death?  Sometimes they were traumatic and leave you with terrible images, or perhaps it was a protracted illness and you witnessed great suffering.

4)  Once you have a sense of why you’re stuck, you can formulate a plan to get moving again.

You can begin to counteract the paralysis by breaking it down into component parts, and challenging what you’ve been assuming is true.  That plan might be going to therapy or a support group; it might be paying more attention to your diet or exercise.  What it needs to do is affirm that you are still here, and there is hope in that.  One step at a time isn’t only for AA; it’s good for grief, too.

Be in the moment–not stuck in the past, or fearing the future.  The moment will be far less painful if you allow yourself to experience it, through all your senses.   What do you like to taste?  Touch?  Smell?  Your default response right now might be, “Nothing.”  But to heal, you’ll need to challenge that premise, by doing something.

Think of what you used to love doing, and try it again.  And again.  Try something new.  Find your curiosity.

None of this is easy, but you read this far, and that says something important.  It says that your desire to heal is strong.  You might not believe it yet, but you can go far.

Woman outside image available from Shutterstock.

Complicated Grief: How to Get Unstuck

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2014). Complicated Grief: How to Get Unstuck. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Sep 2014
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