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What Is Unresolved Grief?

What is unresolved grief?

Unresolved grief is also referred to as complicated grief. The medical definition explains that it is “characterized by the extended duration of the symptoms, by the interference of the grief symptoms with the normal functioning of the mourner, and/ or by the intensity of the symptoms.” When one refers to complicated grief, it implies that an individual is essentially stuck in a perpetual state of heightened and ongoing mourning that prohibits her from healing. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), mentions a related disorder, known as persistent complex bereavement disorder. It can occur in approximately 10% of bereaved people. Persistent complex bereavement disorder is characterized by intense symptoms of debilitating grief that do not dissipate in the months following the loss and last beyond twelve months.

The Mayo Clinic explains that grief “is strong, sometimes, overwhelming emotion for people, regardless of whether their sadness stems from the loss of a loved one or from a terminal diagnosis they or someone they love have received.” Loss is a normal and unavoidable part of being human, and grief is an emotion that is caused by loss. Although experiencing grief after a loss is healthy and natural, it does affect the human limbic system by disrupting certain brain chemicals (e.g., serotonin and dopamine). Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with one’s reward center and feelings of pleasure. Serotonin is known as one of the chemicals responsible for maintaining one’s mood balance. While anyone who experiences loss is susceptible to unresolved grief, the University of Michigan explains that it tends to be more common in people who:

  • Are unsure how they feel about the person they lost.
  • Struggle with low self-esteem. 
  • Feel guilty about the loss (e.g., people who think they could have prevented a serious accident or death).
  • Attribute the loss to unfairness (e.g., losing a loved one because of a violent act).
  • Experience the unexpected or violent death of a loved one. 
  • Experience a loss that others might not recognize as significant (e.g., miscarriage).

Unresolved grief will manifest in each person differently. The Mayo Clinic provides the following examples of signs and symptoms of unresolved grief:

  • Intense sorrow, pain, and rumination over the loss of your loved one
  • Inability to focus on anything aside from the loved one’s death
  • Extreme focus on reminders of the loved one or excessive avoidance of reminders
  • Intense and persistent longing or pining for the deceased
  • Problems accepting the death
  • Numbness or detachment
  • Bitterness about the loss
  • Feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose
  • Lack of trust in others
  • Inability to enjoy life or recall positive experiences with the loved one

During the first few months after a loss, many signs, and symptoms of normal grief mimic those of unresolved grief. However, while normal grief symptoms gradually begin to fade, those of unresolved grief linger or worsen. 

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