Many people suffer grief and loss in ways that are considered normal, meaning that they will follow a path that is described as projected, uncomplicated, and familiar. A normal grief pattern may include the initial feelings of pain, sadness, and sorrow.
The continued processing of this type of grief is then followed by the participation in grief rituals that are traditional to an individual’s faith or cultural background.
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Unresolved grief throws that pattern out the window. When experiencing unresolved grief, it may feel like the physical and emotional reactions to normal grief multiply several times. A person experiencing unresolved grief may feel that there’s no end to their pain and suffering.
Unfortunately, they also believe that no one understands what they’re going through, which may compound their feelings. Grief is capable of evolving into many things, but it is necessary to process in order to get to a place of healing.
Definition of Unresolved Grief
When you’re suffering from grief and you deny or avoid your feelings of pain, loss, and suffering, your grief lingers and turns into what's known as unresolved grief. This is a form of complicated, or complex, grief.
There are several ways in which unresolved grief differs from normal grief. One of the most notable differences is that complex grief can last much longer than the typical twelve months it takes to work through the normal grief process.
It is also important to recognize that untreated or unresolved grief tends to become more and more complicated as time goes on. It's not unusual for people to suffer from unresolved grief for several years.
Unlike normal grief, unresolved grief gets worse as time goes by. It affects your life and daily functioning in more severe ways than normal grief. When you avoid dealing with your grief, it hinders your progress toward healing.
Is unresolved grief the same as complicated grief?
Avoiding dealing with your feelings, emotions, and other ways in which grief impacts you is what causes the onset of unresolved grief. It differs from complicated grief in that unresolved grief is like water that has had time to simmer until it boils over because you failed to watch the pot.
On the other hand, complicated is made up of other more complex components that have a direct impact on your pain and suffering. For example, unresolved childhood traumas, feelings of guilt, and responsibility for the death of your loved one, can all contribute to the components which make up complex grief.
Unresolved grief may not involve something so dramatic or life-altering as the above example. Unresolved grief can be something as simple as not allowing yourself to cry over the death of your loved one because you’re too busy with your life to allow time for grieving.
Or, it can be something more complicated, like not taking time to process what your loved one’s death means to you and your changing role in society.
How Does Unresolved Grief Work?
There are signs and symptoms of unresolved grief that work in much the same way as complicated grief. Whenever grief is left unresolved, the underlying issues become more complex and more difficult to work through.
You may not be able to tell the difference between unresolved grief and normal grief right away. But with time, certain characteristics of grief manifest in ways that alert you to the existence of something more complex.
Unresolved grief will follow the typical stages of grief with some added components that must be worked through for the grief to resolve. The following components of grief show up mainly when dealing with unresolved grief:
Intense sadness that doesn’t improve
Feelings of pain and sorrow followed by intense sadness are a part of the normal grief process and typically do not create an alarm when first experienced.
As time goes on, these intense emotions can ease up significantly. When they don’t, and you fail to see an improvement over how sad you feel over your loss, this is usually a sign that there’s some underlying unresolved grief needing to be addressed.
Memories produce intense pain
When you mourn the loss of a loved one, it’s normal to reminisce or share stories about your past with them.
Although painful to think about them and all of the memories that you shared, it still feels good to talk about and remember them. When normal grief turns to unresolved grief, these memories can inflict intense pain to the point that you avoid thinking about them altogether.
Avoidance of close relationships
Unresolved grief also keeps you from getting close to others and forging or maintaining relationships. The reason for this is the fear of losing another person that you love and care about.
Those who are suffering from this more complex type of grief may find it too painful and difficult to maintain relationships.
Unresolved grief creates physical and biological changes in your body. You may begin to experience both physical and emotional numbness, emptiness, fatigue, and digestive issues.
When left untreated, this type of grief can cause these symptoms to develop into more serious and complicated medical conditions.
Avoidance of reminders and special days
Anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, and other special days that have meaning to you are no longer important to you when you’re suffering from unresolved grief.
Significant days such as these tend to create painful memories for you. If you’re dealing with unresolved grief, your natural reaction to dealing may be to actively forget such reminders and special days.
Keeping routines afraid of forgetting
It can sound helpful at first to maintain your daily routines when grieving. However, when you use habits such as daily routines to keep you actively busy and “functional,” you may be allowing unresolved grief to fester.
Guilt and self-blame
Guilt and self-blame are some of the building blocks of complicated grief. These emotions are common when managing unresolved grief.
A preoccupation with blaming yourself for your loved one’s death and feeling guilty over it are two ways in which unresolved grief affects your ability to function in daily life.
The feelings of depression may manifest in unresolved grief more often than not. In the beginning stages of grieving, it may be difficult to tell the difference between normal feelings of sadness and sorrow.
As time goes on, the above feelings of prolonged intense sadness give way to depression. Depression that is left untreated leads to more serious issues like having suicidal thoughts and loss of hope for the future.
Examples of Unresolved Grief
Unresolved grief mirrors complex grief in many ways. They are very closely related to the presence of complexities that take grief from being experienced as a normal type of grief to a more complicated one that is more difficult to treat. Below are some examples of how normal grief turns into unresolved grief.
A mother who loses her adult child to a violent death
In this example, let’s say a mother who wasn’t particularly close to her adult child suddenly loses that child to murder. She may have mixed emotions regarding her child’s death.
It may be that on one hand, she’s relieved to find closure and finality to their otherwise turbulent relationship. And on the other hand, she may be feeling guilt for finding relief in her child’s death.
These complicated emotions make it more difficult for the mother in this example to successfully process her grief. If left untreated, her grieving will be prolonged and may follow her for many years following the death of her child.
A spouse who loses their partner unexpectedly while having an affair
If a spouse was having an affair and their partner dies unexpectedly, there may be some intense feelings of guilt. These feelings are likely to be compounded in this situation where at least one of the spouses was being unfaithful in the relationship.
The surviving spouse may not be able to reconcile their partner’s death, their infidelities, and the guilt they may be feeling for having gone outside of the marriage. The opportunity has been lost to mend the broken relationship and to ask their partner for forgiveness. These types of losses develop into complex and unresolved grief.
A child traumatized by their parent’s death at an early age
Most young children do not know the meaning of grief, or how to properly process their feelings after suffering the death of their parents. The surviving parent may be too engrossed in their feelings of sadness and mourning and fail to identify their children’s needs.
These children grow up dealing with their feelings and emotions in the best way they know how without the added benefit of grief counseling, in most cases.
Unresolved grief issues can follow them into adulthood and affect their lives in ways that may not be apparent until they suffer another great loss. Their unresolved grief has now turned into compounded grief and will need to be unraveled by a counselor who is adept at offering grief counseling.
What Unresolved Grief is and Feels Like
Unresolved grief tends to feel like the world is crumbling around you, and no one can comprehend your acute sadness. The pain of your loss seems intensified, and you feel as if there’s nothing in this world that can alleviate your suffering.
Unresolved grief is nothing more than what it says—grief that has yet to be resolved. A counselor trained in dealing with issues of loss and mourning will help you to sort through these feelings and get you on your way to healing from your grief.