Unresolved Grief, Complicated Grief or Just Plain Stuck?
With the New Year, I am starting a new series of posts on when grief gets stuck. How to Survive Your Grief was written for the majority of people who are experiencing normal grief and is best read during the first 6 months or so.
Yet for a variety of reasons, normal grief can get well and truly stuck. Most of the advice offered in How to Survive Your Grief is designed to keep the flow open, but there are some (who haven’t read the book?) who get well and truly stuck in their grief.
In professional lingo it gets described as unresolved grief or complicated grief which are accurate enough. Sometimes it gets diagnosed as depression or PTSD. In some cases those diagnoses are correct but in many others they are just plain wrong. Grief is not depression and it’s not all PTSD either. Stuck grief can turn into depression. Some horrific losses do trigger PTSD, but most deaths do not. Most deaths trigger grief, an appropriate though extremely painful response.
Even if the diagnoses were accurate, they don’t really speak to the underlying issue which is the grief for whatever reason, has stopped moving.
but which don’t really speak to what’s causing the grief to be unresolved (aside from it’s not time yet) or complicated.
Having worked with grieving people for over 20 years, I have witnessed the fluid nature of grief over and over and over again. The grief that heals us is always moving and always moving in the direction of healing even when it doesn’t feel like it. I trust the process so completely I don’t even question it anymore. This is the nature of grief.
When someone dies, grief follows in order to heal us. I know it feels like a totally messed up system but there you have it.
Having worked with grieving people for over 20 years, I have come to trust and respect the grieving process as one of the miracles of our human design. Grief when followed without trying to manage it, direct it or deny it, is always moving in the direction of healing…always. It is also something that is constantly moving. When you listen to people in the first few months, they are bouncing around from tears to laughter, from sadness to bittersweet memory, from anger to depression and back again. The nature of grief is that it is all over the map, ie a fluid state that is anything but still, and the stories change. On the surface they sound the same but if you listen over time, new elements emerge, the emphasis changes and in time even the verb tense changes. When you’re the one who is grieving, it’s sometimes hard to see the changes as they happen over time but when you sit and listen to people in groups and individually over that first year or two, the movement is unmistakable. Every time someone shows up for a session their emotions are different, and what they’re talking about is different. Sometimes not dramatically different but always subtly different.
In contrast the person who is getting stuck shows up week after week after week with the identical emotions and affect, stories that have become rote recitations of their pain.
In normal grief the storytelling moves folks out of the ruts whereas in grief that’s stuck it’s like trying to get traction in a snow drift with the tire spinning and spinning deeper and deeper into the rut.