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 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. For some, though, the loss can cause such immense emotional upheaval that it never ceases – leaving them to suffer from unresolved grief.

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.

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 is exactly what hinders the healing process and leads to unresolved grief.

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.

Symptoms of unresolved grief in adults and teenagers may include:

  • Unwillingness to speak about the loss or acknowledge it
  • Obsession and preoccupation with the memory of the person they lost
  • Isolation and avoiding contact with other people
  • Phobias and anxiety (for adults often about their health)
  • Overactivity and intense occupation with a hobby or work
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drug or alcohol abuse
  • Risky or criminal behavior (most often in teens)
  • Guilt, self-reproach, 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)

How is Unresolved Grief Treated?

Grief counseling can help you heal no matter what type of grief you’re experiencing. 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

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.

Click here to learn more about how to move forward when grief wont let go.

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.
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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