When Jake’s father died, his mother, understandably, emotionally collapsed. As an only child, he was the one to step up—handling the funeral arrangements, sorting out the estate. When asked how he felt through it all, he said that he didn’t have time to feel much—he was so busy handling all the details and being strong for his mom. A year later he is charged with assault after a biker accidentally bangs into his car mirror.

When Amanda’s grandmother died, it wasn’t unexpected because she had been ill for a long time. Although Amanda was close to her grandmother, her death and her funeral all happened while she was school, in the middle of exams, 2,000 miles away. Though she mentally pushed the loss out of her mind, lately she has been having dreams and fears about something bad happening between her and boyfriend—that he will break up with her no reason, or he’ll be involved in some terrible car accident.

Emma was suddenly and unexpectedly fired from her job after a company reorganization, a job she had had for several years and where she had close friends. But she didn’t let the firing get her down. She hustled and within a couple of days found another. While the new job is not particularly stressful, she’s noticed that she has been binge eating, especially on weekends.

With any loss comes grief, that natural process with its stages and contours that is our human way of emotional healing. But all too often this normal process gets stalled or sidetracked or pushed underground creating emotional consequences.

Here are some of common symptoms of incomplete grief:

Irritability / anger

This is Jake. His stepping up to be the good-tin-soldier pushed all those normal feelings down that finally erupted in his angry outburst. I’ve met many clients over the years who come to therapy for anger management or irritability and somewhere around the third session mention that their partners thought they have been particularly more irritable in the last six months since their father died or mother died. How’d they react at the time, I ask. Much like Jake, stepping up, pushing grief away, resulting in an out-of-the-blue explosion or a steady irritability.

Continued obsessing / missing of the other

Obsessing about what happened and why, feeling those pangs of sadness and loss are part and parcel of normal grief, particularly in the weeks following. But sometimes a person will get stuck on emotional rewind and can’t move forward. They find themselves dialing the deceased person’s phone number or they replay moments of regret, or cry whenever the lost person or something sad is mentioned.

Hyperalertness / fear of loss

Like Jake, Amanda was able to mentally compartmentalize her loss of her grandmother in order do what she felt she needed to do, but like him, she didn’t have an opportunity to grieve and get emotional closure. But where Jake’s grief turned into anger, Emma has a growing anxiety. After a loss, life can seem more fragile, the person can feel more vulnerable, the world can seem unsafe. In response to these thoughts and feelings the person becomes hypersensitive and alert, now wired to be prepared for the worse.

Behavioral overreaction

Amanda’s anxiety is the emotional response, but there is often a cognitive-behavioral response as well. With any significant loss, we unconsciously or less than consciously make a decision of how we need to be to avoid dealing with such pain and trauma again. When incomplete grief is added to the mix, a person can overreact. Here Amanda may become more dependent and clingy to her boyfriend, while someone else may swing way to the to the opposite side and pull away from others, avoiding any sense of closeness to order to avoid potential loss and pain. This can become not just a short-term way of coping, but quickly solidify into a longer-term pattern in relationships.

Addictive / self-harming behaviors

Emma is an example not only of impact of incomplete grief but also of grief being truly in the eyes of the beholder. Someone else may do much the same as she did and march ahead without any pull of grief because he sees his job as just a job, the layoff as part of corporate life, while for Emma the sense of loss is significant. Like Jake and Amanda, Emma pushed her emotions to the side, but where they internalize and get angry or hyperalert, she keeps those feelings at bay through her over-eating. For others it may be drugs or workaholism, or engaging in high-risk behaviors.

Apathy / numbness / low-grade depression

Here the shutting down of grief is like throwing a heavy blanket over our emotional selves. The result an emotional numbness, low-grade but persistent depression, a why-bother attitude, a lack of energy, drive, motivation.

Completing the grief process

What makes it difficult for Jake, Amanda, and Emma to move forward is that they think that they are, but are not aware of the incomplete grief left behind. The first step in completing the process is recognizing what may be signs and symptoms of incomplete grief.

If you suspect that you may be struggling with the undertow of past losses, however small or large, there are few things you can do:

  • Get closure. One effective way of doing this is writing out your thoughts. I have an exercise that I use with clients that has been effective—see Getting Closure: 3 Letters—here on my blog for instructions on how to do this.
  • Move towards what you might be avoiding. Here Jake visits his father’s gravesite, which he has been finding excuses to avoid. Here Amanda talks to her mother about her grandmother or about the funeral; rather than cutting off ties, Emma keeps in contact with colleagues from her old job or writes a letter to the CEO about how she felt about the firing process.
  • Behaviorally change your patterns. If you have fallen into bad patterns, you obviously want to change them—Emma her overeating, Amanda her increased dependence on her boyfriend. Combined with getting closure and moving toward what you are avoiding, pushing against your anxiety-driven behaviors will help you feel more in control and stop the negative cycle.
  • Consider therapy. Finally, because all this difficult and is often tied to other core issues, this is a good time to consult with a therapist, even for a short stint of therapy to both challenge and support you. Grief is about you and your relationships with others, and it helps to have others help you with your grief.

While emotionally painful, the natural grieving process helps us heal. If you got stuck along the way for whatever reason, help yourself to complete the process.

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