February 11, 2019 Brigitte Ganger

What is Incomplete Grief?

Understanding and recognizing signs of stalled bereavement

What is Incomplete Grief?
Incomplete grief is emotion that is frozen in time, making it difficult for a mourner to move through the phases of grief that lead to healing. (Getty Images)

Though there is no set timeline for processing grief, some behaviors in grief can be signs of grief that is complicated or unhealthy. Many external and internal factors influence the ways in which every individual experiences and expresses intense grief, and these can differ from person to person. When a person seems to come to a halt in their bereavement, without feeling a sense of acceptance and peace with a loss, it's known as incomplete grief.


What does 'healthy' grief look like?


Before delving into the world of abnormal grief, it's important to understand that even typical expressions of grief are often rife with depression, emotional torment, crisis of faith, anger and a host of other unpleasant and toxic feelings. During grief, a lot of difficult experiences are part and parcel of having lost a loved one. So what is the difference between healthy (albeit confusing and painful) grief and grief that is considered incomplete?


Most people suffering a serious grief reaction go through stages of grief, experience progress, setbacks and frequently repeat stages. Acceptance isn't a light bulb that suddenly glows one day—it's a long process where little glimmers of hope slowly occur more often and for longer over a lengthy period of time. 


What causes incomplete grief?


A stall in grief can occur when a person is unable to find enough closure in any phase of grief, and become unable to progress into the next stage of bereavement. When this delay continues for a very prolonged time, a person might be experiencing incomplete grief. It may feel like grief continues on "forever and ever."


Fully processing the loss of a beloved relative or friend takes years. Even though you may not experience sudden, intense spells of longing or sadness or rage after the initial shock of grief has worn off, it's normal for these kinds of emotions to return. It's hard, for those who aren't used to confronting these kinds of emotions, to discover that they can return again and again, seemingly at random. 


This can almost be too hard to handle. Some rush to declare themselves recovered, only to find they were burying unresolved emotions. Confronting grief as it comes, expressing yourself, experiencing pain, and seeking professional help if needed, are the best strategies for true recovery. 


Signs and symptoms of incomplete grief


Incomplete grief should only be diagnosed by a qualified psychologist. However, there are several signs and symptoms grief psychologists look for when trying to establish a patient's grief is incomplete. 


In a June 2017 Psychology Today article, Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W., said there are six signs to watch out for:



  • Anger and irritability

  • Obsession or extreme yearning 

  • Hyperalertness and fear of loss

  • Behavioral overreaction

  • Addiction or self-harm

  • Apathy and numbness


These issues can turn into anxiety, depression, long-term addiction and other emotional obstacles down the line, including but not limited to:



  • Devastating grief anniversaries

  • Obesity

  • Chronic pain or illness

  • Exhaustion

  • Repressed anger


Though grief does become a part of you as you move forward in your life without the presence of the person you've lost, intense grief does not need to last forever. Grief signs like sudden bouts of tears, depression, anxiety, hypervigilance, rage, rumination on the final days of the deceased person's life, denial of the loss, guilt, blame and extreme mood swings are not expected to regularly occur beyond the first year or two following the loss of a loved one. If the intensity of grief does not wane in time, it may be a sign of incomplete grief. 


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Moving through grief


The best way to move through grief is to take it as it comes: expectations of linear progress, or the complete vanquishing of grief forever are largely unattainable when someone important to you is gone. If you are suffering from a stall in your grief, it's possible to complete the grief reactions that are unresolved. 


If you or someone you care about appears to be exhibiting signs of incomplete grief, it's a process that can be resolved through personal introspective work. Incomplete is a fairly common grieving issue that people experience, and any qualified grief counselor should be able to help you tackle it. 


Being stuck in grief is hard on the body, the mind and the soul. When you continue to mourn a person who has passed, you don't allow yourself to have a continued positive relationship with one who enriched your life. You may not be able to reflect on good times with them, because the pain their death overtakes these recollections. You owe it to yourself, and to the memory the person who has passed, to give yourself the best possible chance to move forward in grief healthily.

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