Six Signs of Incomplete Grief

When the grief process is stalled, it can take its toll on you.

Posted Jun 07, 2017

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, a natural process that is our human way of emotional healing. But all too often this normal process gets stalled or sidetracked or pushed underground.

Here are some common signs of incomplete grief:

Irritability / anger

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. Often it was by stepping up, pushing grief away, resulting in an out-of-the-blue explosion or steady irritability.

Continued obsessing / missing of the other

Obsessing about what happened and why and 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

After a loss, life can seem more fragile, a person can feel more vulnerable, the world can seem unsafe. In response to these thoughts and feelings the person may become hypersensitive and alert, now wired to be prepared for the worse. 

Behavioral overreaction

With any significant loss, consciously or not, we make a decision about 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. One person may become more dependent on a partner, while someone else may swing way to the opposite side and pull away from others, avoiding any sense of closeness to order to avoid potential loss and pain. This way of coping can quickly solidify into a longer-term pattern in relationships.

Addictive / self-harming behaviors

Where some, in pushing their emotions aside, may internalize and get angry or hyperalert, others may keep those feelings at bay through, for instance, over-eating. For others still, 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 is an emotional numbness, low-grade but persistent depression, a why-bother attitude, a lack of energy, drive, motivation.

Completing the grief process

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. Jake, whose father died, could visit his father’s gravesite, which he has been finding excuses to avoid. Amanda can talk to her mother about her grandmother or about the funeral; rather than cutting off ties, Emma can keep in contact with colleagues from her old job or write a letter to the CEO describing how she felt about the firing process.
  • Behaviorally change your patterns. If you have fallen into bad patterns, you obviously want to change them. Pushing against your anxiety-driven behaviors can help you feel more in control and stop the negative cycle.
  • Consider therapy. Finally, because all this is 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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