Stuck or Unstuck in Grief? Who Gets to Decide?

“Stuck in grief”-it’s a theme of blog posts, psychology papers and magazine articles.  The author usually lists either a variety of “symptoms” or relates anecdotes of people who do truly odd things after a loved one dies.  “Complicated grief” is a legitimate psychiatric diagnosis.

But who gets to decide?  

What objective criteria can be applied to every situation, every person, every death to determine whether someone is truly stuck in grief?  How do you take into account the circumstances of a death, the relationship of the bereaved to the deceased, trauma surrounding the event or any of a dozen other things that influence how long and how deeply one grieves a loss?

Obviously there are certain signs that someone needs professional help, medication or intervention.  If a person is abusing drugs or alcohol, acting out in ways that harm or threaten harm to themselves or others, or is experiencing depression or uncontrollable anxiety then please, please, PLEASE get them to a doctor who can diagnose and treat them.

But for the rest of us, “normal” grief covers a wide variety of behaviors, feelings, attitudes and timelines:

Posting photos or videos of our missing child is normal.  It’s the last visual link we have to someone we can no longer see.

Mentioning my son in conversation is normal.  I mention my other children and his life is still intertwined with ours.

Crying-even years or decades after the loss-is NORMAL  Grief waves can hit with tsunami force from out of nowhere and slam me to the ground. The only thing I can do then is let them wash over and around me until they pass.

Keeping space for my son in my home, at my table, in my heart and on holidays is normal.  Some parents do this with a special candle, photo or ritual. Some do it with a stuffed animal or other item that represents their child. Some do it with words or deeds of kindness done in honor of the missing one.  No one has sat in Dominic’s space at my table in these three years.  It’s my silent witness to his ongoing influence and irreplaceable presence in our family circle.

Keeping a room exactly as it was is normal.  Boxing everything up is also normal.  Every heart is different and every heart has to decide what helps it heal.

Sleeplessness is normal.  Some parents never return to pre-loss sleep patterns.  I wake every morning at about the time the deputy came to our door.  Every now and then, if I am extremely tired, I may fall back asleep for an hour or two.  Sleeping the day away is normal, too.  Sleep may be a welcome relief to a weary heart and some parents find that when they can, they sleep a lot.  (Note:  if this continues for days or weeks, please check with your doctor about the possibility of depression.)

Anxiety is, sadly, VERY normal.  The worst has actually happened and that makes the possibility that it could happen again oh, so real.  Anxiety may well spread to things that seem to have no relationship to loss.  It’s also normal to have a “devil may care” attitude. The worst has actually happened, so what could be worse?  Might as well live life to the full.

Withdrawal is normal.  So is over-scheduling and staying busy.  Both are ways someone may try to deal with heartbreak.

You don’t have to be “stuck” in grief to still feel the pain and have it continue to affect your life.

I am and have been highly functional since the morning the deputy arrived with the news of my son’s fatal motorcycle accident.

But I am a very different “me” than I was before that doorbell rang.

Some things I can’t do anymore. Some things I do differently and some things are brand new and I have only done them since he left us.

Labels are rarely helpful when applied to people.

Every person is unique, every relationship unique and every situation unique.

And every grief journey will be unique as well.

roller coaster 2 better image




Author: Melanie

I am a shepherd, wife and mother of four amazing children, three that walk the earth with me and one who lives with Jesus. This is a record of my grief journey and a look into the life I didn't choose. If you are interested in joining a community of bereaved parents leaning on the promises of God in Christ, please like the public Facebook page, "Heartache and Hope: Life After Losing a Child" and join the conversation.

16 thoughts on “Stuck or Unstuck in Grief? Who Gets to Decide?”

  1. My daughter died, after a long illness but suddenly and unexpectedly, 4 years ago.
    As a father, I find it extremely hurtful and unkind to read quotes such as the one that heads this blog, which claim a superiority for a mother’s love – that suggest that my grief as a father, and my love for my daughter as her father, is in some way inferior to that of her mother.
    I would plead for a recognition that father’s grieve too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am very sorry that you feel excluded by the quote. I am a mother writing this blog so write from a mother’s perspective. I have never (if you read the text of my blogs) asserted there is either a qualitative nor a quantitative difference in the grief a mother or a father feels. When selecting a feature image, I am limited to copyright free images available online. There are not very many that speak of a father’s grief. I am so sorry for your pain and loss and do not ever mean to diminish anyone’s pain in any way. But I won’t apologize for speaking from my own perspective. I pray that the Lord meets you where you are in this journey and gives you what you need to endure. ❤


  2. hi melanie. kind of a crazy question for u. my 21 year old son just got his motor cycle license. we lost our daughter last year to a medical illness. i saw that ur son passed in a motor cycle accident i think??? i am having anxiety about him on a motorcycle though he is a VERY cautious driver. HELP! should i fight this? any insight would b helpful

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All I can tell you is that my other boys never rode again and sold theirs. But each is still in a hazardous profession so that was just so if I got “ the call” again it would not be to the same cause. Daily life holds no guarantees. I would discuss this with your son and listen to his way of thinking. Then explain your anxiety. Bottom line, he’s an adult and you cannot stop him but you might create significant ill will between you if you don’t tread lightly. Praying for you to find the right time and the right words.


  3. I was at a retirement celebration straight after school yesterday where some ex staff members also came along. It wasn’t very long before the three of us who are members of this terrible club were congregated together. Our normals although very different, were easily recognisable. Our masks were off and we were able, for a short period of time to lean into each other with complete, unjudgemental understanding. Heartbroken for us all 💔

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is one of the most helpful articles I have read on grieving. Our society has turned every sort of pain and hardship into a medical or psychiatric condition. As a culture that worships prosperity and the display of some sort of breezy, carefree lifestyle, we are losing the capacity to deal with and experience stress, pain, loss and hardship. “If you are hurting, something must be wrong with you.” NO. We are grieving. Pain is unavoidable and normal and, when surrendered to Christ, can be a tool in the hand of our Father for good.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, I just finished reading On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. It was written in 1969 once antibiotics, childhood vaccinations and other medical advancements had turned a couple generations of doctors into people who could no longer admit that something might not be “curable”. While I disagree with some of her conclusions, I was fascinated by the conversations she records in detail. The people who were dying KNEW they were dying and wanted to talk about it (usually) but those around them wanted them to act like everything was OK. Bizarre.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. My son was also named Dominic. I love your blog! because the way you explain grief ..mirrors my heart…
    It is so very hard to explain..Dominic was the eldest.. brother to five sisters…the battle is always in trying to act normally in abnormal situations.
    Thank you for your words…so healing.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “Anxiety is, sadly, VERY normal. The worst has actually happened and that makes the possibility that it could happen again oh, so real.”
    Before I read this this morning I thought perhaps I am experiencing PTSD. So helps to know that I am not alone in my struggles. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, anxiety is normal. But PTSD is also common. I think a good number of bereaved parents suffer from it at a level just shy of diagnostic criteria. I know I certainly have/am. ❤

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Me too! I was anxious since I was a child. I endured 2 losses when I was 12 years old. My father from cancer and a close childhood friend. The death of my husband from cancer and then our daughter Veronica death 3 months later, broke me. The trauma from losing her is beyond description. My anxiety increased thereafter…I am pretty certain I have PTSD. I believe my son does too. He received counseling for a couple of years. Thank you for your post! 💖

        Liked by 1 person

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