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6 Signs of Unresolved Grief

Grief gone underground can back up on you.

Key points

  • Unresolved grief can lead to various symptoms, including anger, guilt, and delayed depression.
  • Some other common symptoms are hypervigilance, being clingy or detached.
  • The best way to deal with unresolved grief is to get closure; you can write a letter.
Source: jerrygorecki / Pixabay
Source: jerrygorecki / Pixabay

You’ve likely heard about the five stages of grief that come with losses—death, breakups, even job loss—that supposedly we all march through.

But some of us don’t march through them or even move forward; instead, we push down and seemingly skip over. Sometimes, it’s because there was no opportunity.

I often hear the story, particularly from men, about how when their father died, their mother fell apart, and they needed to step up and arrange the funeral to handle the estate. They marched ahead as the good tin soldier and never grieved. For others, the absence of grief is part of their personality or family culture, a pushing away of strong emotions overall.

But pushing or skipping over catches up with you. Here are some of the most common symptoms of grief gone underground.


The same guys who talk about having to step up often are seeing me not for grief but anger management—they have ongoing irritability or periodic blow-ups.


Part of the healthy grieving process is making sense of what has happened and, over time, creating a more realistic and balanced story. When this processing doesn’t occur, what often remains is guilt about what was done, what you should have done, what you didn’t do.

Delayed Depression

You think you’re doing OK, but six months later, your dog dies of old age, you don’t get the promotion at work you were counting on, or the mutual breakup suddenly doesn’t feel so mutual. You’re devastated, way out of proportion to the situation.

Losses are all connected, and the dog, job, and breakup trigger previous ones.

Hypervigilance, Generalized Anxiety

Unresolved grief creates trauma, and any trauma forces you, often on an unconscious level, to see the world in a new way. One common way is you now see the world as less safe, and as a result, you’re more anxious.

Your head is generating worst-case scenarios: your partner is 15 minutes late coming home, and you’re imagining car accidents; you have nightmares; you’re always looking around corners.

Control, Detachment, Independence

If hypervigilance is about a changed view of the world, this is about a changed view of you. Again, on an unconscious level, you’re pushed to decide how to be different in the future so things like this don’t happen again.

This is where people become more controlling and rigid or decide, “I need to take care of myself and not depend on others,” so they don’t have to risk another loss.

Being Clingy, Walking on Eggshells, and Becoming Passive

Or the swing to the opposite pole and hold on too tight, go along so as not to make waves, and risk losing the other person.

The Way Out Is Getting Closure

All these reactions result from the underlying problem, the need to get closure, to grieve. Sometimes, this process may be started when the dog dies. The job doesn’t come through, the breakup—a tipping point is reached, and unresolved grief and new grief combine.

Sometimes, it’s approached sideways: After a couple of sessions, the folks who come for anger management are now talking about their loss and grief. But sometimes, the process needs to jumpstarted.

One of the best ways I’ve found and what I suggest to clients is letter writing. If the person were to come back, I say, (or even your boss on the job who denied your promotion) for an hour, sit in that chair (I point to an empty chair), and you’re never going to see them again, what would you want to say, what do you need to get off your chest.

Write this down longhand, not a computer, in a stream-of-consciousness style—"I don’t even know where to start” or “I remember when.” See what comes out. After about 15 minutes, you may have run out of things to say. Take a few deep breaths and see if anything else comes to mind.

Next, write a letter back to you. If the other person read your letter or heard you say what you had written, what would you like to hear them speak in response? Again, use the same stream-of-consciousness style. See what comes out.

This is about closure, saying what you didn’t get to say, expressing what is important, and hearing what you need to listen to feel resolved. This can be heavy; take your time, but try to do it all in one sitting. If it feels too overwhelming, consider talking with a minister or therapist, someone to guide you and help you feel safe.

Is it time to put your loss to rest?

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Taibbi, R. (2015). Boot camp therapy: Action-oriented approaches to anxiety, anger & depression. New York: Norton.

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