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

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Grief is a natural and normal response to death and other types of significant loss. Every person who has experienced any kind of grief knows that sometimes things can feel worse than at other times. Some people find it difficult to move on from their grief, and it ultimately intensifies as time goes on. 

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This intensification, or worsening of your grief symptoms, is what’s commonly referred to as exaggerated grief. It has to do with a person who’s grieving, becoming so overwhelmed by their loss that their grief gets worse over time.

Exaggerated grief can cause psychological and biological responses that are often difficult to manage on your own.

What is Exaggerated Grief?

When a person suffers several losses or other traumatic events all at once or in a short period, grief becomes compounded. This is a result of not having enough time to resolve emotional conflicts between incidents or traumas. 

A person who’s experiencing exaggerated grief may feel an overwhelming loss of control and unable to cope with their losses as they go through the stages of grief. As time goes on, chronic depression begins to set in. 

Some of the signs of exaggerated or complicated grief include:

  • Intense emotional pain and sorrow
  • Feeling empty and hopeless
  • Intense yearning to be with the person who has died
  • Inability to focus on things other than their loved one’s death
  • Failure to accept the death
  • Feelings of numbness
  • Becoming detached from life and others
  • Isolation
  • Bitterness and anger
  • Avoidance of things that trigger memories of the deceased
  • Extreme focus on the things that remind them of the deceased

There isn’t much information available on what causes exaggerated grief in some people and not in others. What is known, however, is that those who suffer from complicated grief may also have certain personality disorders.

They may also be affected by their environment, how they were raised, their personality, and the body’s natural chemical reactions to grief. 

ยป MORE: When someone dies, they leave a life behind. This checklist takes you through the next steps.

 

How Does Normal Grief Compare to Complicated Grief or Other Types of Grief?

At first, there isn’t much difference in the signs and symptoms of normal grief compared to complicated or other types of grief. Normal grief is regarded as the typical response to the pain and sorrow associated with loss or other traumatic events. A grief that takes on a different, more prolonged healing trajectory is considered complicated grief in certain instances. 

Exaggerated grief falls under the umbrella of complicated grief that can include others such as:

What distinguishes exaggerated grief from other types of grief is that sorrow and the inability to function will not tend to improve over time as with normal or different types of suffering. In some cases, older women are more prone to suffering from exaggerated grief than men. 

Certain factors that can contribute to this type of grief are the suffering of an unexpected death of a loved one, the death of a child at any age, being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, having a history of depression or abuse, childhood traumas, and experiencing other stressors like loss of a home, income, or job.

How Does Exaggerated Grief Work?

Exaggerated grief shows up in many different ways and affects everyone differently.  The transition from normal to complicated grief is a gradual one that may at first go unnoticed. 

People who suffer exaggerated grief may not recognize it in themselves. Their loved ones and those around them may notice the changes and movement through the stages of grief, as well as the subsequent effects of certain changed behaviors in their loved ones. 

Complicating factors

A person’s personality is mostly responsible for how they process their grief, whether they internalize it, or if they understand and ultimately accept their loss.

The stages of exaggerated grief typically follow the usual trajectory of normal grief and then veers off into more complicated grief as you add in a person’s personality, ability to cope with external stressors, and past experiences. 

Incomplete mourning

Getting stuck in mental, emotional, and spiritual levels of mourning and not working through feelings can result in incomplete mourning.

You may want to consider reaching out to your support group or a professional counselor to help you process each of your losses through resolution. 

Lack of self-awareness

One of the components of exaggerated grief is a lack of self-awareness that may require seeking outside grief counseling or therapy to work through your pain and suffering. Sometimes it’s challenging to recognize that you’re grieving. You may not be aware of the extent of your suffering, how it’s affecting you, and how it may be impacting others around you. 

Those who’ve experienced the death of a loved one or any other type of significant loss may suffer through uncomplicated, normal grief in the early bereavement stages that may later turn into complicated grief. 

This is an excellent time to read books on grief to help you work through your feelings and emotions as you become more self-aware. You’ll learn essential skills on how to console someone and help yourself and others deal with their grief. 

Repressed grief

Not allowing the time and space necessary for mourning can also contribute to a prolonged and exaggerated grief process. The longer you ignore your feelings and emotions associated with grief, the more difficult it is to begin the healing process.

You may soon start exhibiting the signs and symptoms related to complicated grief that include any or all of the following:

  • Suffering long bouts of sadness or anger
  • Chronic pain or illness
  • Digestive disorders
  • Exaggerated emotional reactions to other losses

Past trauma

Past psychological wounds left untreated affect the successful navigation of complicated grief. A person unaware of how grief works or how grief rituals help heal pain and suffering may suffer from mental and emotional blockages associated with unaddressed past trauma.

Confronting and working through these issues may result in progress toward healing from this type of grief. It’s essential to work through any problems in your past that you may have repressed or forgotten about until now. 

You can work through past trauma and other types of psychological wounds by:

  • Joining a support group
  • Journaling
  • Meditating
  • Getting proper nutrition, diet, and exercise
  • Obtaining adequate sleep

Some Examples of Someone Experiencing Exaggerated Grief

Those who suffer through exaggerated grief may not know that there’s a label describing what they’re going through. They may also not be able to recognize the difficulty it is to stop having specific thoughts or experiences associated with this type of grief. 

Some examples to help recognize exaggerated grief in yourself or others are:

1. Finding it difficult to accept your losses and turning to substance or alcohol abuse to help you cope

Seeking out drugs and alcohol to help you cope with your grief is a common way of escaping your feelings and emotions associated with your loss. Things may seem so overwhelming that you may not know what to do next or how to cope with your loss. 

At times like these, your support group may not know how to help you work through your grief effectively. Consider seeking the help of a counselor or grief therapist before things get out of control or to the point of addiction that’s difficult to recover from.

Grief therapy is a more extensive way of working through your grief and is typically reserved for more severe or extensive reactions to grief like these. 

2. Having an irrational fear of dying or nightmares about dying

Known as thanatophobia, being consumed by irrational fears about dying may manifest in those who exhibit signs of suffering through exaggerated grief. When someone experiences multiple losses one after another, it triggers the “am I next” thoughts and fears. 

A grief therapist will help you to break down these destructive thought patterns to help you recognize how your thought process may be irrational in each circumstance when these thoughts seem to occur. 

3. Exhibiting suicidal thoughts or behaviors 

Feelings of being overwhelmed may lead those suffering from exaggerated grief to start having suicidal thoughts and exhibiting other such behaviors. If this is happening to you, it’s vital to seek professional help and your loved ones’ support. 

Prioritize getting help while also focusing on recovering from these signs and symptoms of exaggerated grief. Some ways in which you can help alleviate some of the pressure associated with grief and mourning are to:

  • Taking the time in making significant decisions (moving, changing jobs)
  • Putting off till later getting married or divorced
  • Withholding from making major purchases like a home or new car

Healing from Exaggerated Grief

The experience of grief is not something you fully recover from. The pain and sorrow of your loss follows you in some capacity for the rest of your life. For some people, time does not heal their grief and pain. They just learn how to deal with it and move forward with their life and in their new reality.

For others, grief is something that they’re able to successfully work through to continue to move on with life after loss. The end goal is to reach a healthy resolution of your pain and suffering. 

Looking to learn about other types of grief? Read our guides on climate grief and traumatic grief.


Sources

  1. Petruzzi, Jimmy. “The Different Forms and Reactions of Grief and Bereavement.” ResearchGate, October 2019, www.researchgate.net/publication/336926996_The_Different_Forms_and_Reactions_of_Grief_and_Bereavement
  2. Slate, C. N., & Scott, D. A. “A discussion of coping methods and counseling techniques for children and adults dealing with grief and bereavement.”www.counseling.org/resources/library/VISTAS/2009-V-pt.2/Slate-Scott.doc
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