What’s Dysfunctional Grief? And How Does It Work?

Certified Grief Counselor

Published on:

Dysfunctional grief is a type of intense grief that may not progress in the same manner as normal grief. A person who experiences a significant loss will process their grief in ways that depend on their perception of that loss. Several factors can determine whether a person will struggle with coping with their loss. The individual's emotional state and how capable they are of dealing with that loss are two of those.

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The simplest way of describing dysfunctional grief is when a person experiences complications in the normal grieving process. Normal grief goes through the five stages of grief that lead to a healthy resolution.

When the grieving process deviates from this expected path, a person is said to be experiencing dysfunctional grief. This type of grief is considered to be unresolved, or complicated grief, with no successful conclusion.

Definition of Dysfunctional Grief

Dysfunctional grief causes extreme sadness, overwhelming feelings of loss, and mourning. It keeps you from working through the stages of grief in expected ways. This type of grief usually remains unresolved and causes further complications further down the line if left untreated. Some of the more common symptoms of dysfunctional grief include:

  • Inability to re-establish relationships
  • Crying
  • Sadness
  • Reliving of past loss over and over 
  • Unable to lessen the intensity of grief
  • Unable to function
  • Emotional instability
  • Ongoing lamentation
  • Unresolved denial 
  • Unresolved anger
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Feelings of guilt

Is dysfunctional grief the same as complicated grief?

Dysfunctional grief is considered a form of complicated grief. It's usually severe, prolonged, and may not fully resolve on its own. Complications in your grieving process can stall your grief. In some cases, the steps you've taken forward in your healing may start to regress. When this happens, you repeat the cycle of grief that you experienced at the onset. 

You may find that you can't escape the feelings of shock, denial, anger, being lost, alone, and devastated. It can also feel like you can't shake off your overwhelming grief. When you feel this way, consider seeking the help of a professional who’s trained in dealing with complicated grief. The things to look for that take grief from normal to complicated are:

  • Being consumed with thoughts of your deceased loved one
  • Getting emotionally upset when you think of them
  • Unable to accept the death
  • Extreme longing for the person who died
  • Prolonged disbelief over what happened
  • Feeling prolonged anger over their death
  • Feeling distant from others/Unable to rebuild relationships
  • Feeling empty

These symptoms alone will not elevate your grief from normal to complicated or dysfunctional grief. They’re only guidelines to look for when assessing how you’re feeling. Only a trained professional will be able to evaluate your level of grief and determine the appropriate treatment, if any, that is recommended for you.

You may benefit from reading books on grief to help you better understand what you’re going through. Also, consider joining a grief support group of others who have suffered a similar loss as yours.

How Does Dysfunctional Grief Work?

As mentioned above, dysfunctional grief is considered to be severe and prolonged and can impair your ability to function with daily tasks of living. You may experience grief in ways that make it difficult for you to move forward from your feelings of sadness and yearning. At times, thoughts of your deceased loved one will consume you. You may not be able to accept that the person has died, or you may feel extreme anger that they're gone.

Things that contribute to your grieving are how you view death based on your experiences, culture, and religious or spiritual beliefs. Your psychological and emotional well-being at the time of death also contributes to how you grieve your loss. All of these things are internal ways of processing your grief. 

Things on the outside that affect how you grieve are the relationship you had with your loved one who’s died, your social circle of support, and the role that your loved one had in your life. If you were completely dependent on them, for example, you’ll grieve their loss differently than if you were self-sufficient and independent. 

Intense yearning

When the feeling you get of wanting to see or be with your loved one who has died doesn’t diminish over time, it can cause your healing progress to stall. If you are unable to move past this stage, it can transform your grief from normal to dysfunctional. You may begin to experience feelings of guilt over the way they died. And you may be unable to move forward from thinking that you can get your loved one back.

Intense yearning for someone goes beyond wishing they were still here with you. It’s defined by the inability to accept their death, and thinking that they’ll one day return to you despite knowing and understanding that they’ve died. 

Preoccupation

Your thoughts control your feelings and emotions in almost every instance. When you suffer a loss, you may be unable to stop your thoughts from going over every detail of your loved one’s death.

If you find yourself constantly thinking about what your loved one was doing when they died, how they died, and other details related to their death, this may be harmful to your grief process. It's considered an unhealthy preoccupation that may keep you from moving forward past your grief.

Loss of meaning or purpose

Being unable to accept the death of your loved one and losing hope for the future are signs of dysfunctional grief. You may find yourself unable to move forward with life, or it may be difficult for you to live from one day to the next. Losing all meaning or purpose in life when your loved one has died is an expected stage of dealing with complicated grief. 

Sadly, you may find that ordinary tasks no longer serve a purpose. Things like personal grooming, keeping a clean house, or even sleeping and eating may disinterest you. Sometimes people misinterpret these signs as signs of depression. However, experiencing these thoughts and feelings are also an indication that you’re suffering from a dysfunctional type of grief.

Unable to re-establish relationships

Sometimes when you suffer a significant loss, the typical reaction may be to withdraw from everyone and everything. You seek shelter within the confines of your home and in the presence of those closest to you. Social engagements may become difficult to keep, and you may just not feel like going out much. Eventually, you’ll start feeling better, and you’ll start venturing out a little bit at a time.

But, when you’ve suffered more complicated grief, you may find it hard to reestablish your relationships. Socializing will no longer interest you, and you may also find that people disinterest you. 

Examples of Dysfunctional Grief

Dysfunctional grief comes in many forms. It affects men, women, and children alike.  Some other common or tell-tale signs of when you’re dealing with this type of grief are described in the examples below:

1. A son denies the importance of his relationship to his father who’s died

When a person denies the relationship they had with the person who died, they may be doing this to lessen the pain of their loss. Sometimes it’s difficult to accept the death of your loved one, especially if the relationship was strained. You may use this method of denial as a coping mechanism to get you through the initial stages of grief. 

If you find that you're unable to accept the reality of your relationship with them even with the help of grief rituals, you may need to consider seeking counseling. This may help you with any displaced anger or other unresolved issues. Leaving these types of issues unaddressed will delay your grief process.

2. Loss of a child at birth

An example of complicated, or dysfunctional grief that comes with a lot of mixed feelings and emotions when you lose a child at or before birth whose death may have been prevented. For example, a woman who was told to take rest for the remainder of her pregnancy and didn’t take her doctor’s advice may suffer other types of complications in her grief.

She may be feeling guilt and remorse. She may be consumed with thoughts of what she could have done differently to prevent the death. Or she may be feeling so despondent and torn over her child’s death and the need to continue working to feed her other children. In this situation, there’s a secondary loss contributing to the primary loss. These layers complicate the grieving process and are common in dysfunctional grieving. 

When Grief Becomes Dysfunctional

Grieving the loss of a loved one is never easy. When other life issues complicate the process, it makes it even more difficult to work through the stages of grief in the way that they were intended.

Knowing how to console someone who’s suffering from complicated grief becomes even more challenging. When it’s you that’s grieving, understand that you don’t need to go at it alone. 


Sources

  1. Wetherell, Julie Loebach. Complicated grief therapy as a new treatment approach. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 14,2 (2012): 159-66.
  2. Shear, M Katherine. “Grief and mourning gone awry: pathway and course of complicated grief.” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 14,2 (2012): 119-28.
  3. Wittouck C., Van Autreve S., De Jaegere E., Portzky G., van Heeringen K. The prevention and treatment of complicated grief: a meta-analysis. Clin Psychol Rev. 2011;31:69–78. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
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