Incomplete Grief: Definition + How It Works


Grieving the death of a loved one is a natural and normal reaction to loss. Grief affects individuals differently from one person to the next, and no two people will experience their losses in the same way.

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Grieving individuals may go through a specific mourning process referred to as the five stages of grief, including shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These reactions typically occur at the beginning weeks of grieving following a significant loss.

There are many different types of grief, and not everyone will suffer through these stages. In certain individuals, these stages never manifest. In others, grief effects last longer than what's considered normal and healthy. When this happens, the mourning process lacks resolution and becomes incomplete. These bereaved individuals may benefit from added comfort and support to regain their footing after loss.

What Is Incomplete Grief?

Prolonged or complicated grief sometimes refers to incomplete grief, and their signs and symptoms often overlap. The hallmark of incomplete grief is an overall disruption of the normal grief process. This type of grief often causes long-term suffering and severe painful emotions that can be difficult to resolve. Individuals who find it challenging to recover from their loss after several months post-loss may suffer from unfinished and unresolved grief. 

Many reasons exist for why a person doesn't get a chance to adjust and respond to their losses. Factors such as lack of social support or access to grief resources combine to work against the natural healing process from traumatic experiences. Take a look at the signs and symptoms of incomplete grief below. See if you recognize any of them within yourself or a loved one who may be having difficulty getting through their loss.

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What Are the Signs of Incomplete Grief?

Incomplete grief shows up in many ways depending on the person affected and the type of loss suffered. Sometimes it's challenging to recognize the kind of grief you're experiencing since many signs and symptoms can be the same. However, some typical grief reactions signal maladjustment to how you're coping, and they're explained more in detail below.

Inability to let go

Letting go of someone you love is one of the most challenging things to do after they die. Whether you've suffered through the unexpected death of a loved one or they experienced a prolonged illness, facing the reality of their death is hard.

In the beginning stages of grief, it's normal to feel a longing and yearning to have your loved one back. You can expect these common grief reactions in the first few weeks and months. If the feelings persist or worsen over time, this may indicate that you're having a tough time letting go and that you aren't progressing in your grieving. 

Excessive guilt

Feeling guilty over the death of a loved one is normal for many people, especially those who were in a caregiving position. After a loved one dies, it's normal to feel that you didn't do enough to save them or change the outcome. But, the reality is that these feelings are just that.

Typically there isn't anything more than you could've done to change the circumstances of your loved one's death regardless of how much you wish things could be different. When you feel trapped in the cycle of overwhelming guilt over a situation out of your control, this may indicate a need to revisit your grief.

Lack of social support

A grieving individual who doesn't get the needed social support after suffering through loss may find themselves stuck in a prolonged cycle of grief. Many people who have trouble coping with their loss-related emotions need their friends and family's added comfort and support to get them through.

Trying to cope with unfamiliar feelings and emotional reactions after a significant loss may prove too overwhelming to sustain on your own. Not finding or getting the help that you need tends to lead to complications further down the line. Unresolved grief usually shows up later when least expected. 

Social withdrawal

Whenever a person suffers through grief and doesn’t know how to deal with it, they tend to pull away from the people and things they once enjoyed spending time with. They become numb to life experiences and prefer to stay in seclusion. Although social withdrawal is a typical sign of grieving in many individuals, it becomes an issue when they fail to emerge from their suffering to rejoin society.

Being able to pick up the pieces and resume an everyday life is an indicator that grief is resolving. A person who’s unable to move forward in life after loss may need added support to help them work through their grief. 

Examples of Incomplete Grief

Indicators of prolonged and incomplete grief reflect how a person responds to their losses. Some people may have a hard time crying when someone dies, indicating trouble with grieving. While others experiencing normal grief learn that having a good cry is therapeutic. The following are ways to recognize that you or your loved one may be suffering from incomplete grief.  

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A grieving parent who can’t let go

One of the saddest and profoundly painful experiences in life is the death of a child. Grieving the loss of a child of any age is a complex and highly emotional experience to come up against. Anyone who suffers this type of loss may feel the effects of sorrow for years afterward, and their grieving may still be considered normal.

Even so, the inability to reconcile this type of loss may lead to the adverse effects of incomplete grief. Learning to let go and finding hope after loss is part of healthy grief recovery for parents stuck in their grief.

A widower who stays to himself

Maybe you’ve noticed your friend or other loved one who’s recently lost their spouse skipping out on social invitations or family gatherings. Perhaps, you think they need some time to deal with the loss on their terms, so you leave them alone to grieve. You stop inviting them because you know they’ll decline each time.

Unfortunately, this is the reality for many widowers having trouble dealing with their grief. Instead of facing their feelings and emotions head-on, they withdraw from their social groups and stop attending functions they once enjoyed.

Teens who turn to substance abuse

Teenagers and young adults who have difficulty adjusting to loss sometimes turn to alcohol or other substance abuse to drown out their pain. The numbing effect of drugs or alcohol helps them get through another day after experiencing a life-altering traumatic event. For many individuals who choose to self-medicate, healing from their grief takes longer because they’ve decided to mask their pain instead of confronting their sorrow.

How to Deal With Incomplete Grief

Working through loss takes time and patience. Grieving isn't easy and can often lead to many uncomfortable feelings and emotions. If you're having trouble getting past certain stages of your grief, the following tips may help you overcome some of the challenges facing you.

Give yourself time

Rushing through your grief isn't only unnecessary but unhealthy for you in the long run. Allowing yourself the needed time to fully experience your loss results in a healthier healing journey for you. You can expect fewer long-term adverse consequences when you take your time to process your feelings and emotions. Although there isn't a timeline for grief, you can expect the initial stages to last anywhere from six to twelve months.

Cry it out

Losing someone you love is painful, and it’s normal for you to be emotionally crushed and in need of a good cry. Being alone with your grief allows you to explore how you feel to understand your emotional reactions. One way of dealing with your grief is to go somewhere safe where you can let it all out in private. Crying and releasing pent-up emotions is healthy and helps heal from your suffering. 

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Get help

Some things you can’t get through all on your own, and you’ll need the help of your support group or an outside professional. Most people don’t understand or know what to do with the painful emotions that follow the death of a loved one or other crushing blow to their lives.

Asking for the support you need can mean calling on a friend and telling them what you’re going through. When you don’t have anyone you can call that’ll understand your needs, consider seeking grief counseling or therapy from a professional. 

How to Help a Loved One Deal With Incomplete Grief

When you’re on the receiving end of a phone call that your loved one needs help getting through a challenging time, you might not know what to do. Not many people know what to say or how to help, so don’t despair. The following tips will help you comfort someone who’s grieving.

Listen without judgment

Most often, talking about things helps grieving individuals heal. Many people hold in their feelings and emotions because they think no one cares or they don’t want to hear something that makes them feel worse. You can help your loved ones by listening to them without offering advice or trying to fix things. 

Be present and available

The art of being present and available sometimes means showing up for your loved ones, actively listening to them, and being there to offer a shoulder to cry on. Other times, it may mean showing up for them and offering your support in silence. Try not to overthink things or overly complicate them. Your loved ones will appreciate you being there for them even if you don’t know what to say.

Grieving a Loss to the End

Many people hide their pain and suffering instead of allowing their grief to manifest because they fear what others may think. Our society typically stigmatizes grief and mental health issues, making it challenging for bereaved individuals to ask for the help they need. Grieving as long as necessary is a healthy way of getting past the trauma of a significant loss. Grief needs to manifest, take shape, and resolve fully to heal emotional wounds.


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