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Understanding Unresolved Grief: What is It? What are the Signs? How is It Treated?

unresolved grief reflected in a tree

Unresolved grief, or complex grief, is different from normal grief in various ways.

The 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Hurricane Ike hitting Galveston and Houston in 2008, or the repeated wildfire blazes in California – all examples of devastating events that cost a lot of lives and caused massive loss and grief for many.

In today’s world, there are more things aside from old-age that rob people of their loved ones.

Grief is a common experience of all humankind.

For most of us, grief is a period of sorrow and distress that gradually eases as we accept our loss and move on. Grief is an experience of reaching for someone or something familiar to find that they are no longer there. It’s the emotions we feel when everything that was familiar changes. Each person experiences grief in a very unique way. Common symptoms of grief include: decreased concentration, numbness, disrupted sleep and eating patterns and a roller coaster of emotions. Though grief may look and feel similar to clinical depression, it is not – it’s grief! 

Grief therapy helps to process the loss and move through the grief process in a healthy way. Through active grieving, as time passes, the intense emptiness and pain of grief begins to subside as one moves through the process of grief. Over time, they reach the stage of acceptance, which is an adjustment to the new reality of the loss. This is a process of integration where the trauma of the loss is resolved. Slowly, they return to normal life activities (even though they may still be recovering from the loss). When you experience a loss, your life is forever changed. Yet over time, you can return to living without pain. For some, though, the loss can cause such immense emotional upheaval that it never ceases – leaving them to suffer from unresolved grief. These individuals might not reach a point of acceptance of the new reality for years and remain stuck. 

What Exactly is Unresolved Grief?

Unresolved grief, or complex grief, is different from normal grief in various ways. First, it lasts much longer, at times for many years. Second, it’s much more severe and intense, not lessening with time but instead often worsening. Third, it interferes with a person’s ability to function normally in daily life.

While there are no definite risk factors, it tends to be more common in people who have low self-esteem, feel guilty about the loss, or struggle with their feelings about the deceased. It also tends to affect those experiencing an unexpected and perhaps violent death of a loved one or those suffering from a loss that others don’t readily recognize, such as a miscarriage. Other risk factors include high stress, poor social support, trauma or traumatic grief, and serving as a caregiver to the deceased person. 

Whatever the circumstances of the loss, the common thread is that the sufferer tries to deny or avoid the normal aspects of their grief. Most often, they tend to hold on to their loved one and refuse to accept the loss. And this tendency to avoid grief is exactly what hinders the healing process and leads to an unresolved grief reaction. 

If you are suffering from grief. Take this quiz and find out.

What are the Signs of Unresolved Grief?

At least at the start, unresolved grief is difficult to tell apart from the normal grieving process. However, in time, certain symptoms emerge that can help you determine if you or someone you know is dealing with unresolved grief. Unresolved grief is an experience of being “incomplete” with a loss. 

Symptoms of unresolved grief in adults and teenagers may include:

  • Intense sadness that doesn’t improve with time
  • Fond memories turn painful

    unresolved grief treatment

    Grief therapy can help you heal

  • Avoid getting close to people (relationship fears)
  • Numbness, emptiness, fatigue, digestive issues
  • Avoidance of reminders about the loss
  • Keeping same routines out of fear of forgetting
  • Unwillingness to speak about the loss or acknowledge it
  • Obsession and preoccupation and yearning for the person they lost
  • Isolation and avoiding contact with other people; feeling detached
  • Phobias and anxiety (for adults often about their health)
  • Overactivity and intense occupation with a hobby or work or the opposite – lack of interest
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drug or alcohol abuse
  • Risky or criminal behavior (most often in teens)
  • Guilt, self-reproach, self-blame, panic attacks
  • Acquisition of physical symptoms representing identification with the deceased
  • Depression with tension, intense bitterness, feelings of worthlessness, and self-accusation
  • Suicidal thoughts

Symptoms of unresolved grief in children also may cause:

  • Hostility, irritability, or agitation toward someone connected to the death
  • Withdrawal and detachment from family, friends, or at school
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Problems sleeping (fear of being alone at night)

What is the Treatment for Unresolved Grief?

Grief counseling can help you heal no matter what type of grief you’re experiencing. It can help you move through the stages of grief with supportive guidance vs. getting stuck. But for those with unresolved grief, it is especially helpful.

Grief therapy usually encompasses:

  • Understanding grief reactions and unresolved/complicated grief symptoms
  • Cognitive behavioral techniques that explore and process obsessive thoughts and emotions and address trauma and stress symptoms
  • Role playing imagined conversations with the deceased and explaining the circumstances of their death and possible feelings of guilt
  • Exploring happy memories about the loved one and reducing avoidance of the topic
  • Adjusting to the loss by improving coping skills, reducing feelings of guilt and blame, and eventually redefining life goals
  • Learning skills to safely process emotional reactions vs. stuffing them
  • Re-establishing relationships and connection with valued life goals

Coping Skills that Help

  • Join a support group
  • Add self-care behaviors: nutritious eating, movement, getting enough rest
  • Stay connected with family and friends
  • Plan ahead for anniversaries and reminders of the loss
  • Get involved in spiritual activities
  • Process emotional pain (with a therapist, spiritual advisor, journal) vs stuffing it

Getting help as soon as possible before your grief complicates your life any further is a sensible step. In particular, it is absolutely vital for children who have unresolved grief to receive grief counseling.

Learn more about our loss and grief counseling services. Contact one of our counselors in Houston at 832-559-2622, or schedule an appointment online.

Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP on Twitter
Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP
Rachel’s passion is to help people discover their personal gifts and strengths to achieve self-acceptance, create a healthy relationship with food, mind and body, and find meaning and fulfillment in work and life roles. She helps people create nurturance and healing from within to restore balance and enoughness and overcome binge eating, emotional eating, anxiety, depression and lack of career fulfillment.

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