Unresolved Grief: What Happens if You Don't Grieve Properly

Sadly, death is an inevitability, as is the grief that comes with it. When we lose someone we care about, our grief experience is informed by several complex factors. Each person possesses unique qualities all their own. When we form relationships with one another, these bonds take on their own special and unparalleled characteristics. Losing a loved one can leave us reeling. That one-of-a-kind relationship is no more. In turn, our grief mirrors that special relationship, making it a grief experience like no other. Even if you have dealt with grief in the past, each one is different. While we can’t stop death and grief from coming into our lives, we can choose how to deal with it. There are several healthy and supportive ways to manage our grief. However, when we shun the grief process, our unresolved grief can bring us pain and despair for years to come.

What is Unresolved Grief?

Unresolved grief, simply put, is grief that’s ignored. When a loved one dies, our first reactions are typically shock and denial. The mind can’t fully comprehend the severity of this trauma. It goes into overdrive, looking for a way to absorb the devastating event. Our grief-stricken brain turns on a safety switch to help our nervous system stabilize and cope. That safety switch is denial. By refusing to accept the loss, our mind can slow down and catch its breath. This defense is a natural first response, yet some people choose to stay in this state for as long as possible. Understandably, acknowledging death can be scary. However, staying in denial will cause a person to experience unresolved grief. By denying the loss, any attempt for the mind and nervous system to face grief is continually suppressed, which prolongs the pain and suffering of unresolved grief. Over time, the pain of unresolved grief will continue to grow more severe and intense the longer it goes unchecked.

Causes of Unresolved Grief

Losing a loved one can be a very difficult and traumatic experience. Even though each encounter with grief can vary, unresolved grief is caused by the bereaved denying the normal phases of their grief process. In this instance, grief-stricken people hold on tightly to their departed loved one and refuse to accept the death. This flat-out rejection of the loss is also an avoidance of grief. The denial of grief causes unresolved grief. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away; it only intensifies the pain and despair of grief.

The circumstances of the loss can certainly play a contributing role in a person’s denial of grief.
Sometimes the logistics and demands of handling funeral arrangements and managing estates can leave little room or time to grieve properly. Once the dust settles, they could be left with unresolved grief. Sometimes, a person is unable or refuses to participate in the funeral service. The disconnection from this form of closure can add to their denial response. Forcing life to return to normal as quickly as possible is also how people try to circumvent the entire grief process. It may seem like an attractive shortcut, but they still deny their grief.

What Happens When You Don't Grieve Properly

When grief is suppressed, it can make a person feel like they're in a neverending storm of pain and suffering. The trauma can feel isolating and demoralizing, intensifying their grief. Unresolved grief can express itself in several destructive ways:

Deep Sadness

Sadness is common when facing a normal grief process, but it eventually disappears. With unresolved grief, the sadness only increases as time goes on. A person may feel the overwhelming sadness expressed through anger, despair, or a deep yearning for their departed loved one. When stuck in these debilitating thoughts, functioning in daily life can be extremely difficult. Life’s joy and pleasure may feel like a distant memory.

Painful Memories

Typically in a normal grief process, talking about the departed and sharing stories can eventually be cathartic for the bereaved—not so with unresolved grief. Any mention or memory of the departed can plunge a person into despair. To safeguard against this trauma, a person with unresolved grief will avoid dealing with thoughts of their departed loved one all together. The cycle of pain only continues.

Severe Isolation

The experience of losing a loved one may convince a person with unresolved grief to avoid close relationships so they won't get hurt again. In their mind, the pain of the loss is so unbearable that facing it again would be too much. This avoidance has a great impact on their life. They may increasingly turn inward, refusing social interactions, fall into a deep depression, and withdraw from normal activities and interests.

Emotional and Physical Decline

As despair continues to take hold and intensify, a person experiencing unresolved grief may begin to suffer emotional and physical emptiness. They might stop exercising or even going out at all, becoming more and more reclusive. The body and mind become weaker. They may feel extreme fatigue and lack of motivation. The stress they feel could translate into digestive problems and a loss of appetite. More complicated medical conditions can arise.

How to Start Grieving Properly

If you or a loved one is experiencing unresolved grief, it’s never too late to face grief and find happiness again. Although it may take some time, it will be well worth it! Here are some ways to get on the road to recovery:

Reach Out

Facing unresolved grief can be intimidating and overwhelming, but you don’t have to do it alone. Consider contacting friends, family, support groups, and even grief counselors. You may be surprised by the amount of support and love available. Acknowledging your grief and the loss of your loved one is a wonderful first step in moving forward through the grief process.

Feel the Feel

Try doing the opposite of avoiding your feelings—it certainly didn’t work well to do it that way. By embracing your feelings, you’re allowing the grief to run naturally. Many different thoughts and emotions may spring up. Don’t judge them. Just let it all out and be free of the cycle of severe pain.

Self Care

You deserve to feel good about yourself. Many people experiencing unresolved guilt may harbor shame or guilt—time to absolve yourself. Try indulging in healthy self-care choices such as exercise, a favorite activity, or a nourishing meal. It can do wonders for your mental health.

Honor Your Loved One

A healthy way to process your grief is by creating a meaningful way to honor your departed loved one. There are several beautiful ways to do this. You can create a loving memorial such wearing cremation jewelry, putting a photo album together, or adding a portrait of them to your home. Writing a letter to your loved one is also a cathartic way of expressing your emotions and finding closure. Celebrating the life of your loved one is a meaningful way to fortify your connection, find comfort, and keep their memory alive.

By acknowledging your unresolved grief, you’re taking the first step in the healing process. As you continue to allow yourself to experience the grief of your loss, the cycle of pain will begin to lift. Be good to yourself and lean into the support of your friends and family. Brighter days are on their way!

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