Getting stuck in grief: How do I know if counselling would help?
When someone we love dies, it can leave us feeling, lost and confused. We may be overwhelmed by sadness, anger and other strong emotions as we struggle to understand what has happened or to believe that our life will ever feel OK again.
While many people can navigate the grieving process on their own or with the support of friends and family, sometimes people can find it challenging to move forward with life after loss. For these people, there is an ongoing struggle to return to some kind of normality in daily life. We talk about this as getting ‘stuck’ in grief and in these cases, particularly if this goes on a year or more, then seeking out a bereavement counsellor might be a constructive step toward healing and recovery.
In this article, we’ll look at particular signs of being stuck in grief that indicate you might benefit from working with a specialist bereavement counsellor. While counselling can’t bring back the person you loved, it can help you to better understand your feelings, make sense of your loss and identify strategies to help you cope with your life.
Some reasons that you might feel stuck
While grief is a natural response to the death of someone we love and most people will manage to process the grief that they feel, some can get stuck. There are many factors that will influence this, relating to the nature of the death, the relationship between you and the person who died and how you process the loss.
Some things that might make getting stuck more likely are:
- The death was traumatic, unexpected or ‘out-of-time’. Examples include someone who died in an accident, died by suicide, was a victim of crime or the death of a baby or child.
- You had a complicated or difficult relationship with the person who died. You may have had unresolved issues, been estranged or argued the last time you saw them.
- You have had multiple losses, sometimes referred to as ‘cumulative grief’. If the losses are close together, they can overlap and lead to very intense grief. Multiple losses can be a problem if you have not processed earlier losses.
- You had to deal with other issues at the time of the death and as a result, you may have kept busy and avoided dealing with your grief because it felt too painful or because you had too much else to cope with.
- Your loved one died during the pandemic when you were not able to see them, perhaps the funeral was virtual or maybe the lockdown meant you were isolated from family and friends and grieved alone.
- You have mental health challenges. If you are already dealing with a mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety then grief can be more challenging to navigate as bereavement can intensify the symptoms of an existing mental health condition. For example, if you already have depression, the grief may worsen your feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness.
- You have a lack of support around you or feel like you can't talk to friends and family about your grief. This might be because your grief is not recognised by others, for example, if your relationship was not recognised. Grief surrounding the loss of a much-loved pet is often not recognised by others.
Signs that you might benefit from bereavement counselling
Grief is a highly individual process, and there is no set timetable for how long it should last. Following a close loss, the sadness will stay with us for years and while the symptoms of grief will subside over time, we may experience triggers that make it all seem overwhelming again. This often happens around the anniversary of the death, birthdays or other significant days. However, most people will be able to manage these difficult times while moving forward with their lives (although things may feel quite different).
Some people may, however, struggle to adapt to life without their loved one and their grief may continue to significantly impact daily life and emotional well-being for a long time after the loss. When this is the case after a year or more, then you may be stuck and might benefit from specialised bereavement counselling.
Here are some potential signs of being stuck in grief:
- Emotional distress feels worse: a bereaved person will often experience intense emotional distress, including overwhelming sadness, anger, guilt, anxiety and feelings of emptiness or numbness. If these emotions become more intense and persistent over time then counselling may be useful.
- Grief remains intense and persistent: you experience intense and persistent yearning or longing for your loved one, often accompanied by a preoccupation with thinking about the person and a struggle to accept that they are dead. This may include avoiding anything that reminds you that your loved one has died.
- Difficult coping with daily life: someone who is stuck, experiences significant difficulty in coping with routine daily tasks, returning to or maintaining a job or course of study, sustaining relationships, and taking part in social activities. This will probably include continued difficulty in sleeping through the night and disruption of eating habits.
- Isolation: these difficulties may lead to withdrawal from friends and family and feelings of intense loneliness. Avoiding social interaction for an extended period can make coping with grief harder and may be a sign that your grief is becoming unmanageable.
- Difficulty in finding meaning: It is natural after losing someone close to us, that we might reflect on our life and on what is important to us. We may worry about our identity. However, if you find yourself ruminating over the same thoughts, experiences or worries or struggling to find meaning or purpose in life after loss, then you may need professional help to talk through your thoughts in a safe space and to develop coping strategies.
- Self-destructive behaviour: in some cases, grief can lead someone to drink too much or to use drugs to dull the pain. You may have thoughts of self-harm, a feeling that life is no longer worth living or a wish to join the person who has died. It is important that you reach out for support if you are engaging in risky behaviour, have feelings of hopelessness and despair or are thinking about self-harm or suicide. Contacting a specialist bereavement or addictions counsellor is a good first step but, in an emergency, contact your GP or use one of the national hotlines such as Samaritans.
It's important to note that the majority of people who experience grief or struggle with bereavement do not necessarily need bereavement counselling. Grief is a highly individual experience, and people may cope with loss in various ways and on different timescales.
If you are uncertain if counselling would be helpful then you might seek advice from your GP. This is particularly important if you are having thoughts of suicide or self-harm and if this is the case, I’d urge you to contact your GP as a priority and not wait.
Counselling can be a positive step towards healing and an experienced bereavement counsellor can provide you with the support and tools to navigate your grief in a healthy and constructive manner.