When we lose someone we love, we expect to feel sad. Even years before their passing if we took a moment to contemplate what life would be like without them, we could have correctly predicted the sadness and heartache their absence would bring. The reality of grief, however, is so much more complex, and filled with so many tough emotions and “grief roadblocks” that even the most astute could never foresee.
A “grief roadblock” refers to any of the tough and complicated emotions that stand in the way of our path to healthy grieving. These emotions- like anger, guilt and regret- are very often responsible for leaving a person in a grief limbo and halting their ability to move forward.
While anger, guilt and regret are very different emotions, what it takes to move through and push past them is actually quite similar.
Before discussing how to cope with grief roadblocks, it’s worth mentioning that all of this is very “normal”. Not normal for you maybe, and certainly not pleasant, or comfortable. But getting “stuck” at some point along the grief journey is very common and very much to be expected. These emotions will manifest themselves differently for everyone, but here are some examples of what blocks the griever:
ANGER: at the medical profession for “missing” something or not directing care in another direction, or perhaps for not giving the care to our loved one we feel they deserved. At our family and friends for not being more supportive or present. For the way they handled themselves before a loved one’s passing, or for things that have happened since. Anger at the person, disease, drug or mental illness that took our loved one from us. Anger at our loved ones for leaving us – or anger with God or religion or any other higher power for letting a bad thing happen to a good person.
GUILT: at not being able to do MORE. Whatever that “more” may be…encouraging our loved one to take better care of themselves, or preventing them from going out the night they died. Guilt at not being able to prevent a suicide or drug overdose or car accident…feeling always that if only we could have just done “more”, they’d still be here.
REGRET: at not saying “I love you” more often. For not spending more time together or for not always being physically or mentally present for our loved one when we felt we should have been.
The list, truly, can go on and on. Because these emotions do just that – they go on and on, spinning us and scrambling us in a cycle that can become so dizzying and disorienting that we don’t know how to get off. There is no moving forward, only looping back again and again, which can lead to little hope of finding any hope at all.
Ask anyone going through this, why do you allow yourself to become stuck in this cycle? Why can’t you move forward and move past these complicated and negative emotions? These emotions are so empty and meaningless and they serve no purpose…right?
Because the big surprise is that these emotions DO serve a purpose and as soon as we can figure out what that is, we can stop the cycle and begin to move forward in a healthy direction.
So, what purpose do they serve?
1. Control. One of the hardest things to cope with in loss is the realization that we have no control. Not just of our loved one’s life or their passing, but really of any part of life or what happens to us, or the people around us on a day-to-day basis. Can we try to be safe, and healthy and make good decisions? Of course, but even when we or our loved one do everything “right”, bad things still happen. This is can be nearly impossible to accept. So often, instead of turning ourselves over to that very big idea of having no control over anything in life we try to maintain that sense of control and it manifests itself as guilt…”I should have done more”. “I could have prevented it”. “If only I’d been there”. Guilt helps us maintain a sense of control in our world.
2. Connection. Ruminating, second-guessing, going over and over and over the events leading up to the death of our loved one can do a lot of things, but the one thing most of all? It keeps them in our thoughts. It can be a away of holding on, of never letting go. Of proving to them, ourselves and to the world that we will never forget. And by keeping them always in our thoughts, even with self-torturing and suffering thoughts, they are with us. It is our testament, our tribute, and our purpose- to keep them with us always. Even if it means we wither and suffer in the process.
3. Comfort. How odd it may seem to someone who has never gone through it, but there is a dark contentment to be found in the complicated emotions of grief. The feelings of happiness, joy, and humor become the clothes that no longer fit. And for some, anger can be a more comfortable place than sadness. Anger has energy, purpose and often times a target. These complicated emotions can just as easily become the distractions that sideline us from the real pain and emptiness that we just can’t face, or from the joy or feeling of moving forward that we’re afraid to feel.
So…as I so often say in my groups…now what? If this is indeed true, what can we possibly do about any of it?
Think of the times you’ve had something physically wrong with you. An ache, a pain, a sore throat or cough that lingers too long. We can live with the pain for a time, but the remedy is found in the diagnosis – and so the next step for a griever is to think about the “why”. Why am I holding on to these emotions? Starting with some of the reasons listed above, why – if I have decided that I want to and am ready to move forward, and I don’t want to feel this way anymore – WHY do I continue to hold on to anger, guilt or regret?
Only you can answer this, but don’t rush it. Journal, meditate, sleep on it or spend time in prayer. Talk with a family member or trusted friend. While the answer of why isn’t always easily found, have faith in knowing that it is there, and the key to moving forward is found with it.
Once you have decided on what the “why” is for you, then it’s important to figure out what’s next. We can’t simply say, “I no longer want to feel this way”, and expect it to happen. For some, this cycle is so ingrained it’s not easily broken. The focus needs to be on redirecting our thinking and our energy.
How to move past the grief roadblocks:
- Letting Go. If our grief roadblock was serving to maintain a sense of control in our lives, perhaps the first step is to figure out how to let go of that need to feel in control all the time. Letting go is probably one of the hardest things to do, but with patience and practice, we can continue to find some acceptance of the idea that we had no control over what happened. Stop here, and take a moment with that. You had no control over what happened. Repeat that to yourself, “I had no control of what happened”. Do this until the weight and burden you have been carrying has been lifted from you. By letting go we can realize that no amount of sleepless nights or overthinking or second guessing will ever ever ever ever ever change what has happened. The only thing we truly have power over is this moment -and this moment only.
- Create a Tribute. This is the most complicated part of grieving. How to move forward without leaving our loved one behind? If I experience joy, even for a moment, is it a betrayal to the loved one I’ve lost? Shouldn’t I always suffer in some way, to hold on to them and their memory? By creating a tribute, a memorial, or a ritual to our loved one, we can maintain our connection with them. We can move forward and bring them with us in a way that is healthy and healing for us. Some people do this on a large scale – a scholarship fund, or being part of a walk or fundraiser for a disease or a cause. Others do it in a smaller, more private way- wearing a piece of jewelry, visiting the cemetery or a special spot once a week, or even just kissing a loved one’s picture before bed every night. There’s no wrong way to do it, and a little time (and maybe trial and error) will help you find the tribute that feels right to you.
- Let your loved one be your guide. What would they want for you? The person who you grieve, whose loss has made it so hard for you move forward… what would they want for you? Some grievers have probably heard this as a friend has tried to help by saying, “your mom wouldn’t want you to be unhappy”. For most, I think it’s a statement that isn’t always taken as seriously as it should. What would they want for you? You know the answer. If they were here, if you could talk to them, they would comfort you and counsel you and urge you to pick up the pieces as best you can and to keep making a go at life. Turn to the loved one you’ve lost and hear their words. Rather than a passing suggestion, sit with this. Feel your loved one’s presence as you can hear their voice and just how they would say this to you. This may be a very painful exercise, but it serves both to maintain our connection with the loved one we’ve lost, and to take the advice we know they’d be giving us.
None of this will happen overnight. Recognize that grieving is a process that we stumble through, and falter at. And while the process of grieving doesn’t have an official end because we will always grieve for the ones we’ve lost, there is the next step. A step toward healing, toward hope, and yes, even joy. But we can only get there if we do the work to move the roadblocks out of our way.
There are so many people out there who can relate to what you’re going through. Find them here at www.griefincommon.com.
Sign up, create and search profiles, and maintain your connections with loved ones by starting new ones in their honor.
Finally, know that our site offers a place to honor and create a tribute to your loved one. With photos and reflections, you can share your loved one with all of us by visiting here: http://griefincommon.com/pages/getting-started-member-tribute-pages/
32 thoughts on “Grief Roadblocks & How to Let Go of Tough Emotions”
Terrific article, not easy to accomplish but one must try
That was wonderful to read. About your puppy. I lost my 13 and 1/2 year old Golden a month after I lost my mom-September 9, 2019, and Cooper on Oct. 17,2019. I’ve begun to think about another dog. I miss my mom and my dog so much that I cry everytime I think of them lately, it doesn’t seem to get better, just worse. Thank you, Shelley
Great article. In my case, after nearly 3 years of wanting to die after losing my partner of 40 years to Alzheimer’s, I found love. Love that made it possible to deal with all my emotions. Not the love of another person, but the love of a 1 lb. 11 oz puppy. His name is Wally and I adore him. I can not tell you how much he has changed my life. I don’t want to die anymore.
I understand that this is a very simplistic method, but it worked for me.
Keep it simple! Life is becoming more and more complex everyday. Animals bring an innocence and joy into our lives and help us remember we are loved
Very emotional to read because everything said in this is so true. Beautifully written. Tremendously helpful. Thank you.
Very sad for me and understand others like me I read about so hurtful on families especially parents losing a child as I did almost 5 years ago my daughter passed away and I am broken inside and still living but unsure why somedays.I have 3 more children who need me i know and I am here for them but losing their sister has changed me so much but I pray to God for strength and support each day. thanks for listening.
I may be strange but my anger was and sometimes still is directed toward the dearest one that died. Why did he leave me? I know he didn’t want to die and certainly didn’t know he would die, but I feel abandoned.
After reading this article, I felt much better but most of all, it gave me a sense of “normal” that all my feelings are a large part of the grieving process. It gave me hope that I will be able to let go someday.
Today at 8:40 am Pacific time my beloved wife, Janet will have gone for 6 months. I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that
thIs anniversary (of sorts) would evoke. I’m going to read her a poem that I wrote for us.
All this is true and helpful. But I also feel that anger helps keep me safe. As soon as I stop being angry at my ex, he stops respecting my boundaries. Without the angry reaction it would be more exoitation. Joe’s are relentless. I can’t figure out to let go of the wall without feeling like I’ve lost more than I held on to by putting it there.
That said NPD, not Joe’s. Sorry. Spellcheck.
My brothers accident that took his life was in part caused by an argument he had with his wife and his best friend that night of his accident. accusations of infidelity were his final thoughts as he hit the road in anger and drunkeness. Many choices involved…including his choices. Humanity is complex. Freedom to choose is complex… The letting go means forgiving, accepting this reality…
Another ‘ excellent-excellent article’ covering all the details’ all the deep emotions ‘ all the mind and soul and body upheavals following the death of a loved one’
Now going on alone for five months’ after the death of my romantic ‘ caring’ humorous’ gentleman’ tender’ cultured ‘ sociable’ husband of 44 years’ I did taste all you describe above’
So terribly difficult this transition to widowhood’
Thank you for this helpful therapy from far far away’ making me feel less alone in my grief and less abandoned in this unfamiliar territory of widowhood’
Looking for advice to help me through the loss of my adult son who over the past year had slipped further and further away from me. He has been gone for 8 days and I can’t even begin to see happiness. The hurt is so deep.
Excellent article, the loss of my son is so fresh, 13 days. I am desperately searching for ways to begin the process of moving forward without him and this article has some really good points, all of which I hear but putting them into practice will be the true challenge.
Personally I find the “He/she wouldn’t want you to be sad” to be a stick that pokes an open wound. My husband would be grieving me and being the teacher he was he would say “Stay with that sadness and meet it for its gifts. Realize that that pain is because love was there. If you meet it it will soften. If you try to talk yourself out of it before you have met it, it will haunt you and take your health and well-being and ways to move forward carrying that loss. The loss will always be there…but allowing it to be what it is without resistance makes it easier to carry. Love is a lot lighter than sadness but you must feel it. Of course I expect you to be sad! You loved me. And now you will carry me with you as your companion in a different way.” He would expect me to be sad. And….he would want me to stay present with my process. Not try to foist it off on some imagined platitude about ‘He wouldn’t want you to be sad’.
This is, at least for me, the absolute best article I have read. It’s been 1 year, and the article is spot on.
Thank you so much for this article it has helped me put my grief into perspective. I know it will take time to do this. Love all your articles they help me to think differently.
Coming to terms with accepting that I am not in control is so hard. I am trying to trust and soften my guilt feelings
I got a lot of comfort from the article, and laughs. I lost my husband 7 months ago, I have his picture on my cell phone, and Yes, I kiss him a lot. He was a wonderful man, and were only married 3 years. I thank God for the last three years. He had pancreatic Cancer:(
A wonderful thing after 18 years of being a widow!! Over 20 years ago my first husband died suddenly ! I still think of him.
Enjoyed the article immensely ! Thank you!!
We lost our “puppy” of 15 years.
I still think about him daily and it’s coming on the 1 year anniversary of his death.
He lived a good life; but we so desperately wanted more. Expected more. Prayed for more.
I need to begin the journey of healing and to move forward. I have a lot of guilt that I expected to have a year or two more with him at least.
Denial and guilt exist even though my mind knows it is not reasonable.
Thank you for the article
That was a wonderful article-so many things to think about-
I could relate to so many -I had no idea how hard grief is until you have been
At the start of my second year of coping with the death of my Bill I lost Leo my black lab. Leo was part of my healing over the past year. We walked every single day. He was my balm for loneliness. I am feeling as if I am starting over with coping.
I am thankful to have this website as a place to talk and say things my family and friends wouldn’t want to hear and wouldn’t understand even though I don’t doubt their love for me.
Beautiful article. I recently lost my fiancé so suddenly. It’s been a month of regressing within these emotion. This article has washed my soul and put me at ease. Thank you so much
That was a perfect article for me. I’ve got a lot of guilt over the loss of my wife. I should’ve known this, I should’ve done that. I can’t help but feel at fault and can’t get over it yet. Now I’ve got some tips that are very helpful. Thank you.
It’s accepting I didn’t have control over my Rick’s health that is hardest. He depended on me, he trusted me, I am his Momma. And he suffered at the end because I made mistakes. His time was up, but he certainly could have gone better.
I miss my Rick.
My boyfriend was ill for days due to alcohol and his skin was yellow but he put off going to doctor and I put it off too and we both did not realise that he was dying of liver failure. I keep wishing so much that I had got him to hospital immediately. I feel very guilty indeed and wish that I could go back in time; if caught early enough he might be alive now. He was 60 and had drunk heavily for years but people drink heavily and live to be old…
It was a good article like it was talking directly about me as I am sure is what others thought. With that said, I see a very long difficult road ahead should I make it that far as my wife was my entire life, energy, strength and everything else about me. I met her 50 years ago last April and were married 47 years this coming Christmas Eve. I love and miss her beyond words.