What’s Distorted Grief? Definition + Coping Explained

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Grief is an inescapable part of the human experience. When it strikes, it can wreak havoc on every aspect of our psychology and overall well-being, creating emotional distortions along the way. When these types of grief reactions happen, it's known as having distorted grief. 

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Distorted grief manifests in different ways for each individual. Many individuals affected with this type of grief will notice that they're acting outside their usual self but can't understand why it's happening. Feeling anger and irritability and having a short temper are only some of the more common reactions. Guilt, remorse, and hostility may also show up when it doesn't make sense to feel this way. 

Definition of Distorted Grief

Bereavement is the psychological response of those who've suffered a significant loss in their life and the ensuing grief. The grief reactions that follow are subjective and are almost always precipitated by a profound, life-altering loss or the death of a loved one. The mental and physical complications associated with grief vary from person to person according to how it has affected them.

Distorted grief is an intense manifestation of complicated grief often described by mental health professionals as an unhealthy type of grief. It manifests in the form of extreme emotional and behavioral changes in a grieving individual. Having intense feelings of guilt, anger, and hostility towards others and demonstrating the desire to do self-harm is a strong indicator that distorted grief is present. 

The above behaviors may be familiar to many other forms of grief and don't necessarily indicate that distorted grief is present in these instances. However, what differentiates distorted grief from other forms of grief is that these intense feelings often affect every aspect of the grieving person's life and relationships. It can also influence how people react toward the bereaved person, especially when they show ambivalence towards others. 

Intense manifestations of guilt, anger, and hostility are the more common grief responses affecting distorted grief. Although ambivalence is present in many types of grief, what sets it apart from others is the level of intensity of the ambivalence felt. It's almost always much more intense and challenging to overcome. Below are some indicators that distorted grief may be present:

  • Feeling angry at the world
  • Being stuck in the anger phase of grieving
  • Fighting with others
  • Self-harm
  • Suicide ideations

Signs of Distorted Grief

In many areas of mental health, it's difficult to distinguish signs of normal grief from other types. Grief is sometimes challenging to diagnose or categorize because it may not fit in any of the existing categories of grieving. Symptoms can and do often fall across a broad spectrum of grief reactions and responses.

Recognizing the signs of distorted grief may not be evident initially following a loss but will almost always gradually begin to show in distinct and undeniable ways. These reactions are known as morbid grief reactions, a distortion of normal grief.  

One common sign associated with distorted grief is the excessive preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased. These thoughts often lead to what's known as magical thinking in believing that they can change the outcome of death by constantly thinking of the dead and wishing them back to life. When the desired result isn't attained, feelings of disabling sadness can often lead to depression and other associated symptoms. Many people suffering from distorted grief also experience thoughts of suicide. 

Other signs to look for are sadness accompanied by tearfulness or the inability to cry despite feelings of profound loss. Some bereaved individuals attempt to avoid feelings of pain and sorrow by delving into their work or hobbies, increasing their workload, and taking on more responsibilities such as volunteering or helping strangers.

On some occasions, a grieving person may develop identification issues related to how the deceased person died. For example, if they died of an asthma attack, the person grieving may develop asthma or other breathing issues. 

Excessive hostility toward caregivers, medical professionals, and hospital administration is another sign of distorted grief. Often these symptoms manifest in the filing of wrongful death lawsuits or writing letters of complaint to the medical board.

Some people will also experience anxiety attacks as a result of this hostility. They may also develop a phobic avoidance of hospitals, clinics, and other places where the deceased was cared for or died. 

Distorted Grief Examples

Distorted grief manifests in many different ways depending on the circumstances and manner of death, as well as the relationship the survivor had with the deceased. Because grief is unique to each person, there are many ways that a person experiences its complications. The following are examples of how distorted grief creeps up and can throw a person’s life and emotions off-balance. 

In cases of medical error, misdiagnosis, or incompetence causing a death, loved ones may develop a host of different hostile feelings and emotions toward those responsible for their loved one’s death. A common way this occurs is when a doctor misdiagnoses a patient’s symptoms or misses the diagnosis altogether.

Loved ones’ grief reactions may include direct anger toward the doctors and medical staff, the hospital, or even the entire medical community. A person suffering distorted grief under these circumstances usually vents their anger and frustrations openly by writing scathing reviews, making official complaints, or taking to social media to tell others what happened. While the complaining may not change the outcome of the circumstances, it helps the bereaved process their grief while trying to make sense of what happened. 

Parents of a child who's died in tragic and unforeseen circumstances will also often experience distorted grief for many of the same reasons as above. Some of the distinguishing factors in the way a parent grieves the death of their child compared to the death of a parent may include feelings of profound guilt and remorse.

A parent may see themselves as ultimately responsible for their child's well-being. The tragic and unforeseen death may reflect on a parent's consciousness much more profoundly than the foreseen death of an elderly and infirm parent, for example.

A grieving parent may lash out at the person responsible for the accident claiming their child's life, society for not providing adequate protection against gun control, or emergency medical responders for not doing enough to save their child's life. 

How to Cope With Distorted Grief

Predicting how long grief will last is difficult as it affects individuals in unique ways. Some people will progress through their grief in normal ways with grief symptoms lasting anywhere from 6 to 12 months.

Coping with distorted grief may significantly prolong the grieving process and how a bereaved individual works through the stages of grief. This is because it may take several weeks for this type of grief to manifest or for a person to recognize the signs and symptoms. The longer there’s a delay in diagnosing, the longer it’ll take for an individual to seek treatment for it. Below are some steps you can take to cope with distorted grief.

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1. Seek support early on

Enlisting the help of friends, family, and other loved ones early on in the grieving process may help the grieving individual. Asking for help isn't always easy, especially when the signs of distorted grief are difficult to tell apart from normal grief soon after experiencing loss.

Letting others in on how you're feeling and how you're reacting to those emotions, thoughts, and feelings emerging as a result of your grief is a great first step in managing your grief. Distorted grief is a complicated manifestation of the normal emotions you'll undergo due to losing someone you love or experiencing other forms of loss. Giving your loved ones a warning of how you're feeling may prepare them for what’s to come. 

2. Consider professional help

Distorted grief is often highly challenging to manage for a grieving individual. On the receiving end of their misery, their loved ones may have an even tougher time coping with the effects. Your relationships will suffer without intervention and may even fall apart beyond the point of repair.

Parents whose child has died may end up divorcing, and siblings experiencing the death of a parent may become estranged due to unresolved grief and its complications. A professional grief counselor or therapist can help you work through these feelings of loss that create a challenging environment at home, at the workplace, or in your life in general.

How to Help a Loved One With Distorted Grief

Helping someone deal with the challenges of distorted grief isn’t always easy, especially if you’re the one on the receiving end of their intense emotions. You may begin to feel resentment toward them which is a normal and natural, defensive reaction.

Although it may be tough to overcome some of these feelings of resentment, try not to take their words and actions personally. Grief makes people act and say things in ways that are outside of who they usually are. You can try incorporating some of these techniques below.

1. Validate their emotions

Validating your loved one’s grief responses is one of the most important first steps in helping them through difficult emotions while maintaining a healthy relationship.

When you acknowledge that their pain is real and how they feel is justified, a grieving individual may redirect their feelings and emotions in more productive ways. They may use their energy to help others in similar situations or may work toward resolving their internal conflict now that you’ve permitted them to do so by showing your love and support.

2. Give them space

Sometimes you’ll need to take the initiative to walk away to give your loved one the needed space to grieve and sort through their emotions. Their pain and grief are nothing personal towards you, although you may be receiving their hostility.

Engaging in arguments or petty back and forth with them will only serve to deepen the disconnect between you. Consider lending your support by stepping back and allowing them to resolve their grief on their terms. 

Dealing With Distorted Grief

Distorted grief is one of the most complex forms of grieving. This type of grief can tear families apart and contribute to a suffering individual’s final downfall. Classified as one of the most challenging types of grief, professionals recognize that distorted grief without proper intervention invites even more tragedy for the bereaved. 

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