What are Stuck Points in Grief?

What are “stuck points”?

In 1992, researchers Resick and Schnicke first described the term “stuck points” in their work exploring PTSD. Whether or not the death of a loved one is experienced as traumatic, stuck points are still relevant to those who have experienced significant loss. 

Stuck points refer to thoughts that repeatedly bubble up in a person’s inner (and outer) dialogue that make it difficult for a person to process, cope with, or reconcile their experiences. To me, stuck points are like mean old trolls living under a bridge. Whenever a person tries to gain some momentum in working through their experiences, the troll comes up and says “Nope, you can’t pass. Now go back and think about what’s happened.”

Stuck points aren’t emotions, rather they’re thoughts that result in distressing emotion. For example, a person might have the thought, “I should have done more to save my loved one” and as a result, they feel guilt. 

Many grieving people struggle with memories and/or thoughts that have distressing emotional consequences, but when everything is so intertwined it’s common to interpret distressing thoughts and emotions as one and the same. This can complicate matters because (1) it can create a downward spiral of negative thoughts and emotions and (2) some people get so distracted by their emotions that they fail to address the underlying thought.

Resick and Schnicke specifically assert that stuck points may negatively impact sense of safety, trust, power, esteem, and intimacy. Especially, when these beliefs are fixed and rigid (i.e. inflexible). If you have a few minutes, check out the following video on the connection between thoughts, emotions, behaviors and stuck points.


Tell me more about how they arise:

There are two ways Cognitive Processing Therapists believe stuck points arise:

First:

A previously held belief is contradicted by the loss or trauma experience. Afterward, a person might get stuck trying to reconcile this dichotomy.

Example: A person experiences the death of a loved one due to violence. Before the death, the person believed the world was a safe and just place, but this event has violated that belief. Now the person is confused and worries they will never feel safe again. They become anxious, hopeless, fearful, and unsure of how to live their life given their new reality.

Second:

The loss event reinforces previously held negative beliefs and the person becomes further stuck within this negative belief.

Example: A person has little confidence they can handle stressful situations and emotions. After experiencing the death of a loved one, their fear of distressing grief-related thoughts and feelings exacerbates this belief and they experience increased anxiety and a low sense of self-worth. These feelings keep them from doing things that could help them cope with grief or find support, which continuously reinforces the thought that they can’t handle their grief.

 

How do I cope with stuck points?

Working through individual stuck points takes patience, perseverance, the courage to examine one’s thoughts and emotions, and the cognitive flexibility to change them.  Stuck points are unique to the individual and their experiences, so we encourage you to spend some time reflecting on any stuck points that may be impacting you in your grief and coping.

Also, try and notice the relationship between your thoughts and emotions.  A simple way to do this is to find a piece of paper and divide it down the middle.  On the top of the left-hand side write “When I have the thought that…” and on the top of the right-hand side write “I feel…”.  Then reflect back on the last week or so and try to identify some of the thoughts you’ve been having and their emotional consequences. If it’s easier for you, you can also start by identifying the feelings you’ve been having and then trace them back to the thoughts or situations that preceded them. 

At the very least, you’re likely to identify some of the thoughts and emotions that have been most challenging to you in your grief.  Perhaps these are areas where you will want to focus your coping – whether it’s through reading articles like this one, journaling, support groups, or one-on-one counseling.  Here on WYG, we’ve written about many different emotions and experiences, so we may have a resource to get you started. 

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November 7, 2019

25 responses on "What are Stuck Points in Grief?"

  1. I was sweet to my husband without exception the whole time we were married and then cranky and irritable that last week. Maybe I sensed something. I honestly don’t know. I was PMSing and stressed out about work deadlines. My husband had major health problems for years and I always took excellent care of him and we always got through everything together. I didn’t know he was going to die and I feel like I really failed him by letting the less significant life stressors take over my attention at the end. I wish I could have that last week back to be more present, to kiss him way more and hold his hand more. I’m only forty-four. (My husband was fifty-one). We were an awesome team and now that he’s gone forty-four suddenly feels very young, because now I have to live for so long without him. It feels like it’s going to take forever to get through it. I don’t really feel comfortable sharing, but I found it helpful to read all of your comments, so I figure it’s only fair if I share too. I lost him right before Thanksgiving this year and I am so devastatingly heartbroken and filled with sorrow, pain, regret, anxiety…. all of it. I’m also traumatized by everything that happened at the hospital. Life will never be the same.

    • Hi Rebecca oh, I really appreciated your comments cuz I struggle with the same thoughts. During the few months before my partner died, I was very worried about her. I stopped working because the stress of caretaking and working was too much. After 11 years caring for her post-stroke/aneurysm, it was getting harder and I was a little bit burnt out. Plus she was reluctant to to go to the doctor regarding a respiratory issue. 30 years we never had an argument, were never mad at each other, and so I regret being a little impatient and not holding her enough, being present physically as I was exhausted and we talked about getting some help to assist with some of the tasks. She was the love of my life and had gone through so much in her lifetime, that I tried to make everything up to her as best I could. There was a lot of growth during that time and she realized how much she was truly loved. you’re right in hindsight if I had known that she was going to die, I would have done a lot of things differently. at least at the end I was apologetic for my burnout and did let her know just how very much she was loved. But it still doesn’t take away the regrets. So I tell her everyday that she was loved oh, I am sorry for my impatience and stupidity, and there will never be another person like her in my life.

  2. I am stuck in the guilt and pain and despair and utter grief that I caused my husband’s suicide. I told him I wanted to separate. He walked downstairs and shot himself. My daughter found him. Then me and my son walked in. My kids and I were everything to him. He was depressed, quit drinking, couldn’t sleep. manic and I didn’t take care of his heart or emotions. I didn’t honor our vows. He thought I was seeing someone else. I am in therapy and it is not helping. I am so depressed. I can’t eat, I am not taking good care of myself. I want time to turn back. I want my husband back. I want to take care of him and make it all better. I want to fix it all. It’s all a bad dream. a nightmare and my children are suffering for my failures as a human being.

    • Barbara,
      I am deeply sorry for everything you are going through. Just remember to be gentle with yourself during this time. Maybe look into doing some EMDR therapy. This helped me tremendously after I lost my father and was having PTSD and intrusive thoughts.
      All you can do is what you are doing. Try not to feel guilty and go over all of the negative thoughts in your head. I know that’s easier said than done and the nighttime is the worst. I hope things get better for you and my prayers are with you.

  3. My husband and I met when I was 23 and he was 32. It was love at first sight, my best friend and soul mate for life. We planned on life long wedded bliss. In 2013 he was diagnosed with COPD and was on oxygen 24/7 (which he didn’t use half the time). He didn’t eat healthy and drank red bulls. I always harked on him to quit drinking them and eating healthier on a daily basis but if you knew my husband, he was gonna do what he wanted to do. On November 4, 2019, I woke up and he had passed away in his sleep. I have a daily struggle missing him and keeping focused on starting a new life. He never thought he was dying and I had no clue. He went to 3 specialist on a monthly basis and now I torment myself on the warning signs I should have noticed with his appearance and I feel a extreme amount of guilt. He passed away at 59 years old. We just purchased our retirement home in June. I can’t stay here. I feel a need to get a new place by my sister because the pain is just too much. I’m hoping someone can offer suggestions on how long this grieving guilt and sadness takes. All I want is my husband back😢

  4. Grief has been with me for 46 years in some form. Grief has brought me to my knees, my heart actually hurts from it, I feel anxious with and without it when it is not in the forefront of my mind, I feel guilt within my grief, my grief shuts me down and opens me up, I don’t cry and I ugly cry, my grief motivates me and holds me back at the same time. I can go on and on about my personal grief, tell how it started when I was nine (1st death in the family) and continues today. The concept of not having it with me seems even more frightening to me then it not being the all consuming, in my face, in my heart constant that I have lived with for almost all of my life. I cannot even imagine what that would look like or feel like. I bring this up as my new therapist wants to try and help me find a way to not feel my grief so viscerally. I can’t imagine that, I’m scared of that but wow wouldn’t that be cool? I don’t know.

    Today my twins would have been 21 but they came and went in the same moment 21 years ago. Yesterday I was really struggling (as I usually do as we get closer to the date but over the years my struggles have started moving closer to the date instead of months or weeks before), we decided to go out to eat and though I’m not a drinker I ordered a beer and quietly wished my kids a Happy Birthday (which I have never done). I realized that my spouse had been supporting me yesterday, by holding my hand, giving me a hug, saying I know “this is a hard day for you” and then I asked “I don’t mean to take all of the support and I’m not sure if you want or need some, do you hurt about their deaths?” and in the back of my mind for years and years I knew the answer but never asked the question because I knew the answer in my mind was the same that was said “No I don’t hurt.” I’m trying so hard not to be angry or hurt or resentful but it’s hard. It was hard 21 years ago when an off-handed comment was said about 2 months after they passed which was “Its not like its a big thing.” (yes we almost divorced but we didn’t).

    Next month will be 12 years that my brother passed away, 4 days before his 50th birthday. I have been older than my older brother for 5+ years now and he was 7 years older than I was. We were best friends, we spoke a dozen times a day, he was my rock, the biggest pain in my ass and his death has been so hard for me. I cared for him over the 1.5 years that he had cancer and I held him when he took his last breath. I talk about him often, telling stories about him as there is so much to share about him. I still want people to know him.

    My mother passed away 4 years ago (2015) and my father 2 years ago come March. 11 months after my brother passed away my father had 2 massive strokes and my mother was already mostly handicapped so I had to move them from their home, where I had care coming in 7 days a week for my Mom to a nursing home 4 miles from me. I was there every day for the first 4 years they were there and then I went every other day for a year and then my mother got sick so it was back to every day until my father passed. During the 6.5 years (Mom) and 9.5 years (Dad) that they lived there I was also raising my 2 kids and running my business. I did the best I could and I know that. People thought I was crazy to take care of my parents the way I did but I wouldn’t change much about what I did or how I did it. I love them, they took care of me and they deserved to be taken care of. There are some things that I could have done better (guilt) but I can’t change any of it. We were lucky enough to be able to support them as I had supported my brother (he had to stop working when he was diagnosed) both financially and emotionally and still do everything I could for my 2 boys. The financial burden has adjusted our life but never to the detriment of my kids. I gave them my all and still do. They are my breath.

    So yeah, I’m scared, I’m tired, I’m sad, I’m grief-stricken, I’m anxious, I’m depressed, I’m shut down, I’m resentful, I’m angry, I have guilt, I have a shorter fuse, I have been ill, I have had multiple surgeries during this time, I miss them all so terribly, BUT I know I’m highly functional and incredibly resilient, big freaking whoop for me.

    Why did I share all of this? I needed to, I just found this site and saw a safe place to put it out there. Thank you to anyone who read this far. Thank you to anyone who doesn’t judge me. Thank you for writing this article and creating this website.

  5. The biggest thing I’m stuck on is that I watched as it happened in almost real time and I’ve watched SINCE then. It’s like one of the other 9/11 family members once said: most people don’t have a live recording of their loved ones dying, that people can watch any time they want. But we do.
    What I’ve never understood is why so many people still want to. I can’t get the images of his final moments out of my head. I just try not to think about it.

  6. My husband was shot 9 times at point blank range while sitting at work in 1992 and I am still grieving. He was my soulmate, the father of our three daughters. My brother, my only sibling, my hero, took his life in 2009 by walking into the path of an oncoming train. I am still in shock and riddled with guilt that I didn’t see any signs. I feel more depressed than ever even though I am on different medications for PTSD and closely monitored by an excellent psychiatrist. I guess I feel as though even though I’ve tried for years, it’s impossible for me to live a happy life

  7. thanks for this article

    whats your email for some questions?

  8. great and nice article

    thanks

  9. I lost my husband 5 years ago. He had lupus, which we considered a chronic condition that we dealt with as symptoms arose. I was on a trip to Europe with my sister and our daughters when my husband died. He had been in the hospital but insisted I go on my trip. He’d had numerous hospital stays in the previous few years and he would always be okay. The last thing he said to me was “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I’ll be fine.” I still struggle with the guilt. My 23 year old son was home alone when he got the call to come in. I struggle with that guilt as well. My sister in law raced over and got me on the phone to tell me they couldn’t keep resuscitating him. He died while I was on the phone, thousands of miles away.
    I miss having someone who knows me as well as I know myself. Someone I can be myself with. I don’t think I’ve had a completely honest conversation with anyone since he died. There’s always something you hold back for worry of being judged. We were married 26 years. I thought we’d have 50. His parents both lived into their late 80’s and he was only 59. I’m too old to ever have the complete connection to someone else that I had with him. I’ve lost half my memories; I can no longer say “Do you remember that time we…” and I can’t confirm when or how something happened “that time”. I resent old couples walking hand in hand. I read obituaries and calculate how much more time everyone had than he did.

    • Ollie,
      I have lived through my first year in this state of grief. You transposed exactly what I want to say but don’t because my friends, coworkers and family can’t possibly understand. Not really. My husband died in Sept of 2018 painting a baby nursery. Heart attack at age 52. A year later I am just so lost. I feel everything you expressed.
      Thank you for sharing.

  10. I understand too well the onslaught of too many deaths in a short period of time. My mother died in 2017 followed by my father in law followed by a cousin and then followed by friends of my husband and I. All in all, we lost 6 people that year – my husband and I were going to a funeral on average every 2 months. In the middle of it all my son decided to get engaged (2 and half weeks after my mother died) and then get married 3 and a half weeks after my father in law died. It was all too much. My parents emigrated from their homeland and resided in a country (that although I am very grateful for the opportunities it has given me) whose culture was very different from my own. As I am an only child, I am now full time carer for my father – a task that is not easy – I live with one foot in each culture as my husband is a different cultural background. You are never the same after so many deaths but people expect you to be the same person you were previously and that is impossible. You yearn for the person you were, for the confidence you have lost, before being abandoned by your so called friends because they are unable to deal with your situation.

  11. Ditto all the comments above and BIG DITTO for the important work and resource being developed here. The PTSD connection is an interesting one for me and the ‘source’ for this was from a whole other place and space of influence as opposed to grief. But I get the ‘stuck’ part totally in the context of grief. The onslaught of events so close to each other made the process of becoming UNSTUCK so much harder. The death of my wife/best friend at age 59…after being together for 30 years. My Dad dying four months later. My/my wife’s beloved dogs dying. There is more…and the ‘hits’ kept on coming. I find I was much better at the start as possibly being comfortably numb and also banking on resilience to navigate out of the abyss. But then that became harder and harder…and an orchestrated mantra of messages from PTSD and Grief became a rhythm and sound track of thoughts and emotions. It helps me in some of my work as a content/writer developer for an ageing well institute in New Zealand.

  12. I, too, know I’m stuck, and don’t see a way out. My husband gave me everything no one else ever had. I miss him. I miss us. I miss the me I was when he was alive. My therapist obviously didn’t have the patience needed to help me try to work thru this. I’ve reached out to several therapists in my area and none have replied. Few friends accept me as I am now, and those same few are too busy with their own lives to be available when I need support. The only group near me only meets once a month. It’s hard enough living, having watched your loved one slowly slip away. Telling grievers they have to walk their path alone doesn’t help, and gives those around the permission they seek to walk away from us. I KNOW I can’t be fixed while living. Grief has moved in and won’t leave. I can tell myself it’s going to be a better day until I’m blue in the face, but every morning that I wake up to face another day without him will never be better.

    • Hi Barb, Your words are my words exactly. I lost my husband of 46 yrs 2.5 yrs ago and I miss him, I miss us and I do miss the me I was when we were together. I have spent hrs in prayer and attended a couple of grief groups. I’ve also been blessed by a wonderful therapist who has listened and helped me to realize all that I am experiencing is “normal.” I still cry every day, mostly in the late evening when we would cuddle, share thoughts about our day and just enjoy being near each other. We were truly the very best of friends. I write LOTS…I have poured out my heart (usually to him) about my life now, about every treasured moment we shared about what I have come to see more clearly since he died. I believe he continues to gift me with an understanding of myself and what value that amazing love continues to give me. I carry the very best of my wonderful husband in my heart and I share it with everyone in my life and I thank him and my precious God for giving me all those years with my sweet love.

  13. Sorry but I will be stuck in grief quicksand forever. Its been 1 year 2 months and not a day or hour goes by without getting “stuck”. Its just me and I know its never going to change. I am now 65 and its not a time for me to try and change what has taken that long to become me. My mind every day is a continuous loop of all that we went through from the shocking diagnosis to the end of a 38 year marriage in only 2 months. No it is not driving me crazy its just that all my days are so consumed with these thoughts and visuals. All done silently by me with me to me as I wear my outside mask to all around me looking like I am doing the best I can. I even now say that line and its a bold faced lie but nobody in my family wants to hear anything else. I am stuck forever in time and will never move on or forward.

    • You can move past the stuck point. I cared for my husband who was a lung transplant recipient for 7 years. I was attuned to his every nuance that could turn into deadly pneumonia. The process required the dedication of caring for a baby. We celebrated our 47th anniversary. Two days later, he had a very good physical therapy session at home. Afterwards, I got him a banana, a protein drink, and a sticky bun and left the house to run an errand. Less than an hour later, I walked back in the house and my son was on the phone with 911 and trying to administer CPR. My son had gone to check on his dad and found him slumped on the floor in front of his recliner. The EMTs came in right behind me and did what they could, but my husband was dead when they got there. My stuck point was “I wasn’t there when he died. I could have done something to save him if I had been there”. The hurt was how could he leave when I wasn’t there? We had been through sooo much together, but he left when I wasn’t there. “I wasn’t there, I wasn’t there, I wasn’t there!!”
      Actually there was nothing I could have done, they believed he died instantly of an aneurysm . I could have been sitting right beside him holding his hand and he would have died the same. I thought, well at least he could have died in my arms. He would be with me right to the end. But now, I wonder how that would have made me feel. Was it a mercy that I was not there? It would have been the one time that I could not have helped him. I would have felt so inadequate, so useless in the face of the death, the inevitable.

  14. I have experienced the unexpected death of my boyfriend & three years later my mother’s death with Alzheimer’s. I strongly disagree that “the expected death is easier.” Both are awful & turned my world upside down & shook me to the core.

  15. The articles come through – always at the moment they’re needed. Whether I know it or not.

  16. Grief is an individual experience and a person has to find their own way through it. It is certain when one is born, they will die. They say “expected” or “prepared” deaths are easier, such as long-term Alzheimer’s and old age, but it also depends how close you were to the person. No amount of “expectation” or “preparation” can lessen the impact other than it not being a surprise. Death by crime of violence will obviously have a far worse impact than death by old age and cancer; still, it depends how close and *dependent* you were on the person, especially for livelihood. Caregiver can become financially dependent on caring for the person with Alzheimer’s because their social security will pay their bills in exchange for around-the-clock care. If this goes on for years the person will have to go back to the job market, and may find that very difficult due to age and being out of the work force for so long Bottom line eventually the person has to pave their way to adapt to circumstances and just keep on living.

  17. I would love to get a copy of this article to save and print if at all possible. I run a grief support center for kiddos and their families and think this would be a great piece to share with the families/adults of the kiddos that attend. I also feel it would be helpful when applying for grants as we are a 501(c)3. Our foundation is the Mourning Sun Children’s Foundation in Apple Valley CA. Thank you for your time, Jennifer

  18. This article makes a lot of sense and is helpful! I have been working with mindfulness techniques to note when I’m thinking of my stuck points, recognize them, and let them go. It has been helping and especially at night when I tend to ruminate.
    Thank you for your good work!!!

  19. Many of your articles have been beneficial to me but this one on stuck points has opened my eyes so much. This is exactly how I have spent the last 5 years. Literally can’t get away from certain thoughts and have felt more crazy every day. I thought of these things constantly & nighttime was the absolute worst. Maybe now I can focus and rid my mind of all of it.

  20. This is EXCELLENT and really resonated with me. Thank you so much for sharing! The video is very helpful too.

    Guilt is absolutely a major stuck point in 2 of my losses. Another strong emotion is anger. I was so angry at the way my mother acted after my dad died that it wasn’t allowing me to grieve my dad.

    The emotion that the world is no longer a safe place is SO TRUE. It rocks your world.

    Thank you again for this information! Super helpful

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