What’s Maladaptive Grieving? Definition + How to Deal


Maladaptive grieving is a form of complicated grief that affects individuals who’ve suffered through a debilitating loss or setback. People who undergo this type of grief may have difficulties resuming their everyday lives even a few months or years post-loss. 

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Some individuals with complications in their grieving will experience maladaptive grief as soon as they suffer through loss. In contrast, others will see a gradual shift from normal to complicated grief in the weeks and months following their loss. 

There are many grief resources available to learn more about how maladaptive grief affects bereaved individuals. The following information may help you better understand what this type of grief is and how to deal with it. 

Definition of Maladaptive Grieving

Maladaptive grieving is a crippling disorder brought on by complicated grief and has to do with your thoughts and actions following a significant loss. Most often, these are disabling, constant thoughts and destructive behaviors that affect your overall wellbeing. 

A different way that this type of grief might manifest is in the complete avoidance of the painful feelings and emotions associated with the loss. The only way to cope with their loss's profound pain and sorrow for some grieving individuals is to avoid the reminders of their loved one who died or avoid the places and situations attributed to their loss. 

Opposite to avoidance is an obsession over the loss. Some bereaved persons will try to hold on to every detail of their loved ones and how they died and looked. In personal losses other than death, a grieving individual might focus on what their trauma robbed them of, spending years obsessing about what their life would've been without that experience.

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Different Types of Maladaptive Grief

Maladaptive grief is a distorted take on the normal grief process. The responses might look the same, but their effects are very different. The following are some variations of the more common maladaptive grief responses when ordinary suffering gets complicated. 

Absent grief

Absent grief is when a person who's experienced a significant loss doesn't feel or suffer any of the normal grief responses expected. Denial or the inability to accept their loss is what causes a lack of emotion in some people. 

The most common psychological reactions to loss include shock, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Most grieving individuals experience some or all of these grief reactions, although not necessarily in this order. 

The absence of suffering may signal a more profound issue associated with complicated grief. One example is when an adult child experiences the loss of an estranged parent. They may not ever mourn their parent's death.

Delayed grief

A delayed grief response is typically associated with avoiding feelings and emotions attached to loss. This somewhat normal response isn't a cause for concern in the first few days and weeks post-loss. Everyone grieves when and how they're ready. 

For some, taking care of end-of-life matters leaves very little time for mourning. When things begin to settle down, that's when they take the time to connect to their feelings and allow their grief to manifest. In maladaptive grief, emotions keep getting suppressed for months and years following the loss. 

Inhibited grief

A person experiencing inhibited grief will typically hold in their despair. They’re more likely to suffer through suppressing their feelings and emotions connected to their loss because of certain external or internal factors. 

People who internalize their grief may do so because they consider their grief a private matter. They may not feel the need to display their emotions outwardly. Although this is a normal grief reaction for some, it becomes pathological when the bereaved refuses to face their pain and suffering even in private.

Unanticipated grief

Individuals experiencing or learning of the death of someone they may or may not know will sometimes unexpectedly suffer the effects of grief. In deaths where the person isn't close to the deceased or doesn't expect their death to affect them, they might find themselves surprised by their grief. These reactions might link to unresolved grief or the consideration of their mortality.

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Disenfranchised grief

Disenfranchised grief ties to the inability to openly express distress over the death of someone or something you know, love, and care about.

Showing expressions of grief might not be appropriate when a married person is involved in an illicit relationship and their lover dies. Or when friends and coworkers shun the suffering associated with the death of a pet. A person who feels that they can't or shouldn't show their emotional pain to others suffers from a lack of social support in coping with their loss. 

Maladaptive Grieving Response Examples

People who suffer from maladaptive grief tend to either push away their grief or react to it in unhealthy ways. Both children and adults are susceptible to maladaptive grieving but display it in entirely different ways.

Typical grief responses in adults might look like this:

  • Burying of feelings and emotions
  • Anger and violent behavior
  • Persistent thoughts of suicide

Children generally respond in the following ways:

  • Behavioral issues at home and school
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Changed demeanor or personality

How to Deal With Maladaptive Grief

Getting through a significant loss isn’t easy. You may find yourself struggling with getting better for several months and sometimes years after your loss. When complications in your grieving arise, you can feel overwhelmed and at a loss of what to do. Talking to your spouse, partner, or best friend might not have the desired effect. And you continue this cycle of trying to get better but feeling worse and worse. 

The following tips will help you better understand what you’re going through and give you some ideas on what to do to help you heal.

Focus on restoration

The first step in getting better after suffering a traumatic loss is getting through the initial stages of grief. For some, adjusting to their loss might take anywhere from six to twelve months. This timeframe is only a general guideline. Everyone's grief response is unique, and you shouldn't compare yourself to anyone else's timeline. 

Once you get through the first few weeks or months post-loss, concentrate on your wellbeing and getting yourself back on track. Self-care can include focusing on your personal life goals and your plans for the future.

Have a conversation

Talking to your deceased loved one as if they are still with you can help alleviate some of the symptoms of maladaptive grief. Having these spiritual communications opens the flow of dialogue, allowing you to get off your chest all the things you’ve wanted to say but didn’t have the opportunity to do so. Continuing the bond with your loved one through these conversations is a healthy way of processing your grief. 

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Seek professional guidance

A skilled grief professional such as a counselor or therapist can help you focus on the reasons why you’re experiencing complications in your grieving. Together you can explore some of the hidden causes and talk about overcoming those impediments to healing. 

Grief counseling also allows you the opportunity to retell your story as much as is needed so you can work on confronting the trauma or situations you may be avoiding. 

How to Help a Loved One Deal With Maladaptive Grief

Helping someone you know and love work through complicated grief can at times be cumbersome, lonely, and frustrating. The issues surrounding coping with maladaptive grief include the stigma that heartache still carries today.

Some grieving individuals hesitate to let anyone know that they’re struggling with their grief. Their families and other loved ones might prefer to sweep the symptoms under the rug. Whatever the case, you must deal with maladaptive grief straight on. When ignored, this type of grief has the propensity to worsen over time. 

Give unconditional support

Many individuals suffering from the symptoms of maladaptive grief either hide them from those closest to them or lash out at them. Either extreme is unhealthy and creates further issues for the suffering individual, their friends, and their families. Uncontrolled feelings of hopelessness and despair tend to lead to substance abuse and other destructive habits. 

A person dealing with maladaptive grief is in danger of their mental health, physical well-being, and relationships all suffering. Although it can be especially challenging coping with someone suffering from complicated grief, giving someone your unwavering support during their darkest moments lets them know that they’re not alone. 

Stay connected

Grieving persons dealing with maladaptive grief suffer some of the symptoms of those who are chronically depressed. They may exhibit withdrawal, loss of appetite, and insomnia. These thoughts and actions can lead to self-destructive behaviors like substance or alcohol abuse and suicidal thoughts when they persist. 

Although you can’t control your loved one’s thoughts or actions, you can be there for them whenever they need someone to talk to or be with. The impact of their racing thoughts tends to be worse at night. Consider checking in with them routinely during the nighttime hours if you suspect they are having a more challenging time coping at night. 

Encourage counseling 

Persons who’ve experienced several back-to-back losses, or especially traumatic ones, may need the added support of a trained grief counselor to help them cope with their compounded and complicated grief. 

A counselor’s responsibility is to not only educate their clients on the causes of grief but give them the necessary skills to overcome negative thought patterns and behaviors that are harmful and often dangerous. Part of their job is to listen to the bereaved client, probe for suppressed past traumas, and help build their resiliency to loss. Within a few short months, your loved one should have a renewed outlook in life and hope for their future. 

Maladaptive Grieving Solutions

Moving through the effects of maladaptive grief is essentially a personal journey that bereaved individuals must go through on their own. However, to fully restore a suffering individual, they must confront their loss and get the proper care when needed. The help and support of friends, loved ones, and trained professionals aids in the process, but they must actively participate in their healing. 

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