5 Signs of Incomplete Grief

Asma Rehman, LPC
Latest posts by Asma Rehman, LPC (see all)

The common understanding of grief is that there are five stages. The five stages of grief are:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The idea is, that until you reach acceptance, your grief isn’t complete. But grief isn’t actually that simple. While you are likely to feel every single one of these stages at different points in your grieving process, it’s unlikely that they’ll come one at a time, and finish up just for you to move onto the next one.

Emotions are much more complicated than that. (And in fact, when creating the five stage understanding, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross didn’t actually intend it to be a guide for grieving–it was initially created to explain how patients grapple with their own terminal illness.)

You might feel anger and depression at once. Or you might feel one “stage” then the next, then you find yourself right back to the first one. You might feel all five at once. There’s no roadmap, no checklist. Grief isn’t about checking off each feeling as you experience it, and then writing it off as complete.

Uncontrolled anger is not healthy and should be discouraged. If you are struggling with this, you can find an online anger management class that will teach you skills to deal with it.

So if the five stages of grief don’t work like that, how do we know when we’re done grieving?

The unfortunate answer is that we’re never truly done with our grief. Those feelings of loss don’t go away, we don’t suddenly forget what it is we have lost. We can learn how to sit with our grief, to understand it, honor it, and live with it without shame.

This process, of feeling, unpacking, and understanding our grief, is the process of grieving.

And when we move on from that process too fast (if we don’t let ourselves adjust to, understand or accept our grief) that is when grieving is incomplete. There are a few ways to recognize that you have stopped your grieving processes before it was complete.

Signs that your grieving is incomplete include:

1). You’re stuck in an “emotional rewind”:

This “emotional rewind” is when you get yourself stuck in the time before or of the loss. Sorrow over a loss is a completely normal part of any grieving process, but being “stuck” or refusing to move forward in life with acceptance of this loss can indicate inhibited or incomplete grieving. This can show up by dialing the number of a recently lost loved one, even though you know they will not pick up; repeating old conversations with a loved one in your head, etc.

Read: 32 Journal Prompts for Grieving and Loss


2). Increased irritability:

It’s important to remember that anger is often a secondary emotion. Particularly through the expression of grief, anger is often covering for a more vulnerable or difficult emotion that we don’t want to deal with. If you find yourself constantly irritable or angry, your grief may be taking shelter behind that anger. Ask yourself, is this anger hiding a different emotion from me? Is it blocking me from fully feeling and grappling with the sorrow/fear/etc. that this loss has brought up for me?

3). Always expecting the worst:

After a loss, fear is commonly heightened. When you have already lost one person or thing that was so important to you, it can be easy to think that everything you love is in danger. But staying in this state of fear means that you have not dealt with the particular and specific circumstances of the loss you have gone through. It can act as a defense mechanism–keeping you safe and away from any vulnerable situation, but also keeping you from exploring and accepting what you are truly feeling.

4). Adopting self harming behaviors:

These behaviors (drinking to excess, substance use, engaging in risky social or sexual behaviors without thinking of safety) is another way in which people avoid, rather than deal with their grief. If your mind or body feels numb, you don’t have to face the hard feelings that come with grief. However, it leaves those feelings for you to deal with as soon as the behavior is done (which is how they can turn cyclical or addictive).

5). Feeling of numbness:

Instead of acceptance, one might feel completely numb to the loss. This isn’t a sign that your grieving is over, but rather that your grieving is being avoided. Just as with anger, irritability, or self-harming behaviors, it leaves that grieving for you to deal with later, indefinitely extending your grieving process while you avoid it.

If you feel like you may be experiencing some forms of incomplete grieving and that more support would be beneficial for you during this process, our therapists at the Grief Recovery Center can help. You can also get online counseling if you live in California, Colorado, and Texas.

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