3 Tips for Working with Grief

John Koop Harder

“How do I work with people who are stuck in their grief? You know, those people that are just not able to move on.”

This is a common question people ask during my grief workshops.

To tell you the truth, I don’t like the term “stuck” – especially when it comes to grief. The language of “stuckness” is rooted in pathology. It assumes that there is something “wrong” with the person, implying that they ought to be in a different place in their grief.

This assumption is misleading because everyone’s relationship with grief is unique. Unfortunately, such judgements tend to further silence, isolate, and pathologize those who are already struggling.

It is not uncommon for helpers to seek strategies to move others out of their grief.  Interestingly, I have found it more helpful to do just the opposite – to help people move into the grief, to sit with it, to learn from it.

Grief is a teacher – a harsh one. It teaches us about what is important to us, our values, our priorities. Grief is important.

As helpers, we need to help people move into the grief, to sit with it, to learn from it.

When I hear someone use the word “stuck” in the context of their grief, it always prompts me to dig deeper. Here are some ways you can support those who are grieving:

Explore their relationship with grief

We all have a relationship with grief, and it is an important and influential one. Healthy relationships grow with awareness, which is why it’s important to help people explore their relationship with grief by encouraging reflection and intentionality. Some of my favourite questions to help with this process include:

  • What does this pain say about you? What does it say about what’s important to you?
  • What do you wish I/others knew about your experience?
  • When/where do you notice rhythms in the grief? (I.e., when is it bigger/smaller?)
  • When is the grief more welcomed? When is it not?
  • What have you learned about grief?
  • What do you wish others knew about this?

These questions shine a spotlight on the relationship with grief and set the stage for my next series of questions:

  • How are you in your relationship with grief?
  • How does your relationship with grief influence other relationships? (E.g., family, friends, interests, work, etc.)
  • If grief were to continue as is, where might it lead you?
  • If your relationship with grief were to change, how would it impact you/others?

All relationships influence others. If one relationship is taking up too much space, others are naturally diminished. When grief is fresh, it makes sense that it takes a dominant role in a person’s life – and rightfully so. However, if grief continues to take prime real estate indefinitely, other relationships will inevitably suffer. Having people reflect on this can help them prioritize their relationships, including the one they have with grief.

From this line of questioning, it is helpful to ask:

How do you want to want to be in your grief?

This question shifts people’s attention away from their current relationship with grief toward what they want it to look like in the future. If they are comfortable with where they are at in their grief, great. If not, it allows for discussion and ideas for change.

Curiosity is key to reflection and connection. Labeling the language of “stuckness” perpetuates feelings of isolation and silence, which becomes fertile ground for problems.

Wonder if other factors are causing problems

Key components of grief are loss, stress, and change. These are challenging to say the least, and will undoubtedly impact a person’s mental health. Our mental health is always in a state of flux – moving up and down a continuum from wellness on one end, to illness on the other. Grief can influence some to move toward the illness end of the spectrum, and those with depression and/or anxiety are particularly vulnerable.

Then there is the potential of numbing. The pain of grief demands relief, and the need to numb this feeling is a common one. Numbing can take many forms including drinking, drugging, working too much, food, sex, electronics, etc. Although numbing can provide short-term relief, it is also easy for these behaviours to create their own set of problems.

Another factor that may influence grief is related to whether the loss is traumatic in nature. If mental health, numbing, or trauma are complicating someone’s relationship with grief, it is important to get to know these problems as well.

Consider who has the problem with “stuckness”

I often find that friends, family, helpers, etc., are more concerned about “stuckness” than the person who is grieving. When this is the case, it is beneficial to help those who are concerned understand some critical aspects of grief:

  • The degree of pain reflects the degree of loss/love.
  • Grief is normal, natural, and needed – it serves a purpose.
  • There is no “right” way to grieve.
  • There are no specific stages/tasks to be completed so that grief will come to an end.
  • There is no specific timeline on grieving.

A person’s relationship with grief is an important one that deserves reflection and intentionality because it often screams for attention. As helpers, using a relational framework shifts our judgement (“stuckness”) to curiosity (exploring their relationship).

When someone experiences a loss, their relationship with grief will understandably take precedence for a time. Left unexamined, this relationship can overshadow others and cause problems. Rather than see a person as “stuck” (a pathology), help them explore their relationship (be curious). Shine the spotlight on grief in the context of their other important relationships so they are aware of what’s going on. This awareness enables the person to shape their relationship in whatever way they prefer.


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Author: John Koop Harder (MSW, RSW)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

John is the co-author of CTRI’s book, Counselling Insights: Practical Strategies for Helping Others with Anxiety, Trauma, Grief, and More. The book is available on our website.

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