More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Reasons for Unresolved/Complicated Grief
Counselling Connection
August 18, 2010

Psychological factors
Anger and guilt can often be a key source of adjustment difficulties in the process of grief. Guilt can inhibit the grief process if mourners are unable to confront the guilt that arises when reflecting on their life with the person that died. Guilt may encourage the mourner to be anxious or afraid of their grief because it may surface negative feelings or acts they have directed to the bereaved. It is also common for individuals going through grief to experience feelings of anger.

Anger may be due to feelings of frustration and a sense of helplessness that may end up being directed at either the deceased or deflected onto others. If the anger is not directed at the deceased and it is not displaced onto someone else, the anger may be turned inward and manifest as depression (Worden, 2005).

The difficulties associated with unresolved grief have also been attributed to a previous insecure attachment to the deceased. Insecure attachments of any kind can encourage distorted perspectives on the meaning of the relationship thereby complicating grief as the mourner grieves from a distorted perspective of the deceased and the meaning they have given to the relationship.

Due to the insecure attachment, the mourner may be afraid to grieve in order to avoid the distorted perceptions of what has been lost and the accompanying feelings of intense helplessness, fear of loneliness and other related overwhelming feelings that can often surround the loss of an insecure attachment figure.

One overwhelming feeling often experienced with such cases is a deep sense of abandonment within those who have lost their insecure attachment figure. It is such feelings of abandonment that could have some individuals reluctant to grieve because the grieving reawakens the painful and very profound sense of being left all alone to fend for them selves in the world.

Multiple losses can also hinder the normal grieving process. Those who experience multiple losses over a short period of time may experience difficulty in grieving because the combined losses are too overwhelming to contemplate and deal with all at once.

People with severe ego impairments (e.g. personality disorders) are often unable to adequately complete the grief process. Such people may have difficulty successfully engaging normal grief processes and instead experience feelings of intense hopelessness, frustration, anxiety and depression resulting in complicated grief (Williamson & Shneidman, 1995; Freeman, 2005) For example, individuals who suffer Borderline Personality Disorder may have difficulty in mastering the grieving tasks before them as they may not be able to fully understand and express their emotions accurately or appropriately.

It is common for some individuals to deny themselves the opportunity to grieve because of their beliefs about what it means to grieve. For example, some individuals may deny themselves the opportunity to experience the full extent of their grief because they may fear losing control or may perceive such intense emotional expression as ?weak?. Others may not want to give up the pain of the loss because they believe it binds them closer to the deceased resulting in chronic grief.

Those individuals with a history of depression are also at risk of developing complicated grief (Mitchell, 1999). Such issues, and others, that may interfere with the normal grief process need to be addressed for the individual to successfully work through it.

Social factors
Social connections provide the bereaved with an opportunity to find support, comfort and encouragement in their grief. However, in some instances, these social connections can prohibit the mourner from experiencing and expressing their grief well. Previous literature has identified three social factors that contribute to complications in the grieving process. These factors are

  1. When the loss is socially unspeakable;
  2. When the loss is socially negated or
  3. When there is no social support.
Socially unspeakable loss refers to the loss that is ?unspeakable? thereby making members of the social system redundant in being of any assistance to the bereaved (e.g. when the loss is the result of suicide, drug overdose and other potentially ?unspeakable? things). In this type of loss, the social network tends to shy away from the bereaved out of ignorance of what to say to console the mourning person.

The social negation of loss refers to when the loss is not socially defined as loss (e.g. abortion, miscarriage, loss of a very old parent, etc). Although the mourner may experience grief, there is often inadequate or nonexistent social support.

No social support refers to when the individual is either away from their social support network at the time of mourning or there is no social support available, thereby making grieving difficult. Geographic distance is becoming increasingly common as individuals become more mobile therefore making the absence of social support in times of grief a very real factor contributing to complicated grief (Freeman 2005, Williamson & Shneidman, 1995).

Society norms and expectations also play a role in the grief work of an individual. Every society has rules regarding what is socially significant and what loss may be recognized. The rules almost dictate who, how long and to whom an individual has a recognized right to grieve. Often these social morays around grieving can overlook the nature of human attachment, the sense of loss and the personal experience and meaning of the grief.

Complicated grief can also be encouraged in the very young and the mentally disabled due to them being perceived as unable to comprehend death therefore are often excluded from the mourning rituals of their society. This often results in disenfranchised grief.

Having the role of the strong one has also been implicated in key social factors that can contribute to complicated grief. In some situations and families, there are certain people who are designated to be ?strong? by those around them. They are usually called upon to make all the funeral arrangements, offer support to others and show no emotions. As a result, individuals in this social role could miss an opportunity to deal with their own grief resulting in delayed grief and other forms of complications (Freeman 2005, Williamson & Shneidman, 1995).

See also:
  1. The Psychology of Unresolved/Complicated Grief
  2. Types of Unresolved/Complicated Grief


I'd thought i d comment about this because i think i can supply good examples of unresolved grief and what it can lead to.
I ll start out with a background of my grieving. I have made other posts about this but i thought i should put a post in here also. I hope this helps anyone that has faced or is facing loss.

1997 was a very rough year for me. I was 16 years old and was raised by my mother and grandma through most of my childhood. My grandma was diagnosed with cancer several years before and we knew that she was due for passing. She passed away that year, it didn't seem that hard on me because i was younger and didn't have a full understanding to how important grieving is. I had my mom to help support me through the period. Then about 4 months later my mother had a heart attack and passed away several days later on life support. It was devastating, this was something that me and my sister couldn't accept due to the thought of it. Now i was facing 2 deaths of very close family. I can't really recall much on my feelings at this time, i think my mind was in a state of shock. My dad was on an army deployment to bosnia and got called back by a red cross message to help me and my sister. The day she was pronounced dead my father and step mother came by the house at night. They told me that i was gonna move in with them and my sister was gonna move in with her friendsa since she was 18 at the time. What really threw me off was that they told me that i would be enrolled in high school about 3 days after the funeral. Then on top of that my dad would go back to his deployment for 9 months. I would be stuck with my stepmother and stepsister that i barely knew or trusted and my sister was about 50 miles away. This never gave me much time to handle the loss, I had so much going on that i shoved all the pain down and over time believed i was healed. With the loss not being handled i am now facing insecurity issues, self esteem, social anxiety and depression. I ve spent a long time seeking help for this and never got it the way i wanted. You get to a point in your life where you make a decision, do you want to live like that or do you want to change. I wanted to change for a long time but never knew the source of the problem. Being an insecure, hypersensitive person dealing with abandonment can really do a great amount of damage on you. You fall into a dark world and your mind does not let you escape. You begin to realize that being sensitive is bad and it makes you hate yourself more and more when rejection hits you, when your mind percieves rejection at everything then it piles and piles and gradually you get worse. Over time you have lost all trust in yourself and you feel terrible. You stride away from people, you are not confident in anything that you do, relationships don't exist and if you do find a person then your insecurity drives them away by your dark perception. Most people you fall in with are usually not the kind of people that make you feel any better. They are there for you to feel accepted. That just makes more negative situations.

I speak about this because i know that there are a lot of people that go through this but don't know why or what caused it. You are not alone and i encourage you to research this more closely, Abandonment plays a big role in society today and its always looked at very little from what i ve seen. When i found out that the loss of my mother and grandma not treated led me to this way of thinking it opened a door that has made my battle with this much easier. I am still researching and trying to find ways to change but i know what the root cause is. If anyone has any suggestions or needs suggestions i will do what i can to help. Thank you!
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