Lesson 3 of 7 - learn how to grieve well


Common Symptoms of
 Incomplete Grief

When is mourning over?

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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    The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/grief/symptoms.htm

    Updated  01-18-2015

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      This is one of the Lesson 3 articles in the Break the Cycle! self-improvement course. The lesson aims to educate readers on healthy grieving basics so they can spot and complete unfinished mourning of major losses, and grow a pro-grief family..

      From 36 years' professional research and clinical experience, I propose that a major unseen stressor in typical troubled people, relationships, and families is incomplete grief. This seems specially likely in troubled (low nurturance), divorcing biofamilies, and stepfamilies.

      First, clarify what you believe now by answering this question. .

      This brief YouTube video previews what you're about to read. The video mentions eight self-study lessons in this Web site. I've simplified that to seven.

       This article describes common behavioral signs of incomplete grief. Use this to broaden your understanding of healthy and incomplete grief, and to assess yourself and/or others for this significant stressor.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit web site and the premises underlying it   

  • these five universal hazards

  • self-improvement Lesson 1

  • these Q&A items and good-grief basics

 Symptoms of Incomplete Grief

       If adults or kids lack good-grief requisites, they may get stuck in mental, emotional, and/or spiritual levels of mourning. Such people often display observable behavioral symptoms. The more symptoms an adult or child has, the more likely s/he isn't done mourning important losses from childhood or later.

      Use this symptom-summary as a checklist and discussion-starter...

  • Seeming "forever" sad, angry, or depressed, or often feeling numb or "nothing"

  • Symptoms of repressed anger

  • Minimizings and/or denials

  • Chronic weariness, depression, or apathy.

  • One or more addictions (toxic compulsions)

  • Repeated avoidances

  • (Some) chronic pain or illnesses

  • Obesity and/or some eating disorders

  • Repeated anniversary "depressions."

  • (Some) digestive and/or bowel problems 

  • Enshrining or purging mementos of lost things, and...

  • Exaggerated emotional reactions to the losses or traumas of other people.

      Incomplete grievers may have one, several, or all of these symptoms. They may be episodic or chronic. Each and all of these behaviors are symptoms of the root problems: psychological wounds + ignorance of grieving basics (Lesson 3) + personal unawareness + lack of inner and/or outer permissions to mourn.

      Here's brief detail on each of the symptoms above:

1) Seeming "forever" sad, angry, or depressed, or often feeling numb or "nothing" - in general, or about a loss (broken bond). People who always seem very intellectual, analytic, and/or unemotional ("flat") may be wounded grievers - or they may be unable to bond.

2) Repressed anger. Signs include repeated:


cynicism / pessimism

insomnia or excessive sleep

inappropriate drowsiness

fist clenching

"road rage"



waking up tired

tiring easily

back pain


"rage attacks"

sadistic or sarcastic humor

inappropriate cheerfulness

overcontrolled monotone voice

clenched jaws ("TMJ") and/or teeth grinding

muscle spasms, tics, or twitches

Some of these may have medical causes. Our mind-body connection is a relevant mystery (i.e. which causes what) here.

3) Minimizings and/or denials. Consistently downplaying...

  • a loss itself ("Oh ______ wasn't that important to me") and/or...

  • feelings about the loss and it's impacts ("No, I'm not sad - just tired is all.")

The ultimate denial is of one's own denial. Denial (reality distortion) is a common symptom of false-self dominance.

4) Chronic weariness, depression, or apathy. It takes a lot of personal energy to repress frightening emotions and awarenesses. Recovery pioneer John Bradshaw likens this to trying to swim while holding a big beach ball under water. Therapist Virginia Satir suggested it's like constantly holding a swinging kitchen door closed against a pack of starving dogs ...

5) Addictions to one or more of these:

  • activities - e.g. work; hobbies or sports; worship; committees; socializing, TV, or personal computers; fitness and health; sex; cleaning and organizing; shopping or gambling; hoarding; reading or "endless" education;

  • substances - e.g. nicotine, caffeine, fats and/or sugars, ethyl alcohol or other  drugs or medications;

  • "causes" - e.g. save the world's environment, hungry, homeless, repressed;...

  • excitement (mood states) - e.g. rage, conflicts, risks, religious ecstasy, or sexual arousal; and/or addiction to...

  • "toxic" relationships (codependence) that consistently promote significant shame, guilts, fears, anger, hurt, frustration, anxiety, and/or frustration.

       True addicts use one or more of these to temporarily numb or distract from (medicate) relentless inner pain. They (their well-meaning false selves) will deny, minimize, or rationalize their toxic compulsions until hitting true bottom and committing to personal addiction recovery. Stable addiction "sobriety" is a requisite for psychological-wound reduction. Some addicts are never able to gain or keep sobriety because of their unawareness + psychological wounds + a low-nurturance environment.

        All addictions are a clear symptom of major family dysfunction, not just a personal problem. Their members often have trouble grieving well.

      More common symptoms of incomplete mourning...

6) Repeated avoidances. These can be verbal, mental, and/or physical. If the loss (or something associated or similar) comes under discussion, a blocked mourner will often become silent or irritable, tune out, try to change the subject, "get real tired," and/or leave. They may also reflexively shun certain ...

  • topics that remind them of what they've lost; and/or...

  • places (like former dwellings, neighborhoods, cemeteries, churches, ...); and/or...

  • people (who remind the loser of what's gone, and/or how it got gone); and/or...

  • activities or rituals (holidays, vacations, births, deaths, graduations,...); and/or...

  • mementos (photo albums, movies, music, old letters, holiday ornaments, special clothing,...) that remind them of their loss/es.

      Blocked mourners will often protectively deny, rationalize (intellectually explain without feelings) or minimize such avoidances. Typical single-parent families and stepfamilies abound with such painful reminders. Are there any such mementos in your life now? Your kids' lives?

7) (Some) chronic pain or illness - specially ones without clear biological cause. A growing number of professional healers feel that recurrent asthma, migraine or other headaches, digestive or colon problems, back pain, shoulder and neck stiffness or soreness, breathing or swallowing troubles, panic attacks, nightmares, allergies, etc. are bodily signals that vital emotions are being repressed. Unconsciously-fearful mourners will often scoff at this or get angry (i.e. scared) if it's proposed.

8) Obesity and (some) eating disorders. Obesity is defined by the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) as weighing 30% more than appropriate weight for a person's body type per credible charts like this. Morbid obesity is weighing 50% or 100 lbs more than appropriate body weight. 

      Morbid implies this condition can be lethal. It's been said of overweight people that "every fat cell is an unshed tear." Adults or kids can numb the pain of unresolved loss (and other things) by compulsive overeating - specially of "comfort foods" - fats, sugars, and some carbohydrates. Others are metabolically unbalanced. Griefwork can be far more helpful for the former than endless dieting/regaining cycles, which can promote shame, guilt, and eventual depression and despair.

      Other eating problems like anorexia (compulsive self-starvation) or bulimia (compulsive binge-purge cycles) may signal blocked mourning and deep shame. Obesity may be a symptom of childhood sexual abuse. This shattering personal violation forces the massive losses of innocence, trust, security, and Self respect in a child too young and needy to understand and protect themselves.

      More common symptoms of unfinished grief...

9) Repeated anniversary ''depressions.'' Major apathy, sadness, sluggishness, sickness, sleep disorders, irritability, or feeling gloomy "for no reason" may recur annually around the time a major loss happened. This can appear to be (or be increased by) "seasonal affective disorder" (SAD), where people rationalize recurring depression by missing sunlight "too much."

10) Some digestive and/or bowel problems. Many different organic factors can cause such problems. Repressed grief may contribute to them by affecting body chemistry in subtle ways. This merits a doctor's opinion, tho many medical professionals may not be aware of the bodily effects of incomplete mourning. 

11) Enshrining or purging mementos. People who obsessively display, revere, discuss, or protect, special reminders long after an agonizing ending can be blocked mourners. Such mementos can include foods, music, clothes, pictures, rituals, furniture, letters, jewelry, perfume, gardens, letters, and many more. Revering or reacting to such reminders to perpetual excess is the key symptom here.

      The opposite may also signal blocked grief. People who compulsively throw away every reminder of the lost person or thing can be avoiding the intolerable pain of admitting and accepting the precious broken bond. They may or may not be aware they're doing this.

12) Often having exaggerated emotional reactions to the losses or traumas of strangers, acquaintances, animals, or fictional characters. Such reactions include uncontrollable sobbing, lasting depression, intense rages, insomnia, obsessions, bodily reactions, and over-identifications ("becoming" the hurt one).

Add your own symptoms of unfinished grief...


+ + +

      Blocked mourners may have one or more of these symptoms and unconsciously hide or disguise them out of repressed shame, guilt, and anxiety. This is specially true when the key people around them are psychologically wounded and disapprove of overt grief. Having one or several of the symptoms doesn't prove a person is blocking major grief. It justifies assessing for it.

      Note that using these symptoms to diagnose unfinished or "complicated" grief is a subjective judgment. Also note that the real problems to assess for are...

  • significant psychological wounds in the mourner and other family adults,

  • a low family nurturance level,

  • ignorance of good-grief basics in family adults and key supporters,

  • personal and/or family policies that discourage healthy grief, and...

  • lack of personal and/or family permissions to grieve to completion.

Restated - blocked or incomplete grief is not the problem. It is a symptom of several problems with the mourner's internal and outer family systems.

      Notice how you're feeling now, and where your thoughts go. Bottom-line questions: is it likely that anyone in your family is significantly blocked in mourning key losses? Who? What are their symptoms? How does their blockage affect them and you all?

      If you decide some family members are blocked, see this article on useful options for completing grief.


      This Lesson-3 article proposes that incomplete grief is a common personal and family stressor, and causes observable behaviors. The article identifies 12 common behaviors (symptoms) you can use to judge whether someone isn't done mourning some important loss/es (broken bonds). If they're not done, they may be at risk of significant personal and social problems.

       Unfinished grief stems from psychological wounds + ignorance of grief basics + personal unawareness + living in an environment that discourages healthy mourning. Once acknowledged, each of these can be improved.

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      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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