Unhealthy Grief Reactions

| Grief Expert and Counselor

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Unhealthy Grief Reactions

There are four basic types of unhealthy grief reactions that, after being discussed here, may help you recognize a pattern in someone you know or even yourself.

Grief counselors are often faced with questions like: Is this crying normal? Should I feel anger? Is my reaction to his death unusual? Is my grief normal? In order to respond to these questions, the therapist, or support person, should look for the following clues to unhealthy, or other-than-normal grief reactions.


Unhealthy Grief Reaction Clues

1. The mourner speaks of the death as if it just happened (although it may have occurred nine months ago).

2. The mourner develops the same physical symptoms as the deceased.

3. The mourner has a radical change in lifestyle (a homebody becomes a “swinging single”).

4. The mourner imitates the deceased in mannerisms, likes or dislikes (the wife goes to the race track because her husband did).

5. A minor event, such as a movie, triggers an unusual and irrational amount of grief.

6. There is a preservation of useless material possessions; such as toothbrush, clothes, shoes or hairbrush.

7. There is a continuous discussion of the death. It is the only topic of conversation. (However, this is not to be confused with the reaction to the death of a loved one when it first happens. It is in those first few weeks that a survivor cannot talk too much about the deceased.)

8. There are continuous feelings of depression, guilt, or low self-esteem.

9. There are continuous self-destructive impulses; such as drug or alcohol abuse, or suicidal thoughts.

10. There is a refusal to go to the cemetery, read the obituary page, or even discuss the death.

These clues will help a support person recognize and identify the need in someone who is not reacting to the grief in a normal fashion. Remember, this article is designed not only for the person who is grieving, but also for the support person who will help the survivor understand the need to grieve. The following are the four basic types of unhealthy grief reactions.


Continuous Grief Reactions 

When a person dies, she or he leaves behind all her or his “things.” If these mementoes serve a useful, positive purpose, then they are worth keeping. Pictures, awards, Bibles, or even a particular piece of clothing can celebrate the person’s life. A grandchild who wants an outfit for “dress-up” is not being disrespectful. Rather, she is cheerfully remembering the grandparent, a piece of jewelry may only have sentimental value, but that is a pleasant and priceless reminder of the past. As long as there is a utility to the object, whether it is comforting or practical, it is a memento that should be kept.

However, if the object does nothing but produce grief, it is a linking object and should be disposed of. Linking objects serve no usefulness to the survivor. They may be clothes, tools, shoes or businesses which, to the survivor, only renew the grief.

Craig, at age 57, died leaving everything to his wife. He had always taken charge of the finances including the purchase of an apartment building as an investment property. Whenever his widow passed the building, or had to deal with the maintenance problems, she was reminded of Craig’s death as if it had happened only yesterday.

Two years passed before she sold the building. It was not until she did this that she was able to finalize her grief and move on with her life.

Continuous Grief Reactions has an origin to a linking object (a grief-producing reminder) as well as having other issues involved, such as an unresolved conflict (an argument). This reaction can last several years until all loose ends are tied up. Clothes must be given away or discarded; tools, knick-knacks and hobby items could be sold at a garage sale; and toys, books, furniture given to a charitable organization. One person’s comforting reminder may be another person’s grief-ridden object. It must be determined which it is (memento or linking object), and handled accordingly for recovery to occur.


Suspended Grief Reaction

This reaction uses a similar avoidance behavior pattern as the “Procrastinator”. A person who reacts in this manner delays her grief, as if to put it on hold in a state of suspended animation. The grief is suppressed and internalized to the extent that a minor event will trigger an uncontrollable reaction. A mourner is crying irrationally about her own grief, not the sad movie.

Why or when can this occur? One instance of when his grief reaction might occur is at a time when a person has too many losses. Everything is confused and seemingly impossible to explain, so it is easier to suspend the grief.

A mother’s oldest son dies in a car accident because he was not wearing a seat belt. Three weeks later the youngest daughter, also not wearing a seat belt, dies in a car accident. The mother decides she cannot deal with the losses so she puts her grief feelings on hold until she :an grieve. Not even she knows when that might be.

Most often this suspension occurs when there is a legal problem: a lawsuit or a court case involving a murder. A mourner cannot begin to grieve until a resolution has occurred. A resolution will not occur until the case comes to trial. A settlement of legal and emotional issues must happen first.

Another mother’s son died in a drowning incident. Because it happened at a neighbor’s house due to the neighbor’s neglect, a lawsuit was pending. When the suit finally came to trial, five years had passed since the boy’s death. At long last the mother was able to grieve for her son, and she did so as if it (the death) had happened five days ago, not five years ago. She had delayed her grief for a long time; but, she was finally able to grieve.


Magnified Grief Reaction

Thanatopsis is a meditation upon death. Thanatophobia is a magnified/exaggerated and illogical fear of death. It is a fear that has no object, unlike a fear of driving or flying when a person can sit in the car or plane and deal with the object of that fear. A person can drive a car and run through an actual lesson on what is frightening. With death, one is dealing with non-existence and, therefore, something without an object. Someone can sit in a casket, but this does not deal with the object of the fear: Death and the unknown.

To some degree everyone has a certain amount of this fear. Existentialism is a well-known philosophical belief.

However, when this existential despair (fear of dying) magnifies itself out of proportion and maladaptive behavior occurs because of it, an unhealthy grief reaction happens and the inability to grieve and recover from that grief takes place.

As Mary approached her 25th birthday, she became increasingly reclusive. Her mother had died when she was 25. Even though Mary knew logically that it didn’t mean she was going to die, illogically she began to fear her own death more and more. She convinced herself that it could just as easily happen to her. She could just as easily die in a house fire or plane crash.

Because of her Magnified Grief Reaction, Mary stayed in her house, stopped using the stove (there might be an explosion), and worried that she was dying too.

A person who suffers from this will not do certain every-day activities because the fear of death overwhelms the thought process. A person will constantly refer to her own death: I should have died instead of him; (or) I deserve to die.

In an argument, this person may say something like: “Well, tomorrow I may be dead and then you’ll be sorry.” The person who magnifies her grief response to such an exaggerated state is not consciously trying to make anyone feel guilty, as that last statement may imply. Unfortunately, they are so conscious of death and fear it so much, that their entire existence focuses on this phobia.


Camouflaged Grief Reaction

The person whose ego (self) is underdeveloped cannot withstand the strain of mourning, so, this immature person will camouflage her grief by displaying outrageous behavior. This behavior would reflect a radical change in lifestyle. If she had worn a minimum amount of makeup, but now spends hours in front of a mirror applying powders, eye liners, shadows and rouges, then you could assume that just as the makeup is camouflaging any physical imperfections, it is also camouflaging the grief. If person’s clothing style changed from Peter Pan collars and tartan plaids to plunging necklines and mini-skirts, more is revealed about the person’s grief than just her chest and legs. If a person sells the 5-door station wagon that was great for car-pooling in favor of a two-seater gull wing Corvette, more than a checkered flag should wave indicating the start of a new race. Someone like this needs help and understanding.

Although makeup, clothes, or cars may be outward signs of change, this person shows no outward signs of grief. She doesn’t cry, doesn’t show anger, nor does she feel any guilt. This grief has manifested itself in another way which is very typical for this reaction: Narcissistically. This is understandable because this person does not accept the grief, another sign of immaturity. This person goes to extremes to have fun to compensate for the grief. Any of these dramatic changes of behavior should be recognized as an unconscious suppression of grief so that recovery can occur.

Monica was 28 when her husband died. They had one child, a four year old boy. After her husband’s death, Monica began wearing a great deal of makeup, having her nails and hair done weekly, spending money frivolously, and going “out” with her girlfriends two or three times weekly. Her son was always left with a babysitter even though grandparents lived nearby.

Monica was doing everything for herself without considering her son’s feelings or needs. Her reaction was very egotistical and selfish. She was not mature enough to realize how the death affected others, and was no comfort to her son or anyone else. Monica needed to learn how to grieve so that she would develop as a responsible parent, and human being.



Here are some examples of Unhealthy Grief Reactions:

1. Sharon feared everything because she was sure it would lead to her own death. Planes were crashing too easily, nuclear reactors could melt down and even trains were derailing. All this fear began when her youngest sister died in a freak boating accident. Sharon refused to visit her sister’s grave and any time she heard of an unusual, accidental death, it reinforced her fears.

2. It started with her aunt dying. Two weeks later her sister-in-law died and one week after that a close cousin died. Marge subconsciously decided it was better to keep working and not think about the deaths she was faced with. There just wasn’t enough time to grieve for them individually, so she’d do it later.

Marge couldn’t understand, though, why she cried so long and hard at her daughter’s Christmas play: A Christmas Carol, or, why the simplest events would get her upset.

3. Alan had been married ten years when he was widowed. He began to run five miles daily, let his hair grow and ride a motorcycle. He also found that alcohol seemed to make him forget and he was grateful for that. His life was no longer the same, why should he be the same?

4. Everything had centered around her Charley in his life, why not in his death? If people or friends didn’t want to hear her talk about him, then she didn’t need to see them. What did it matter that he had died three years ago? Didn’t she have the right to grieve in her own way? Charley had meant a lot to her and without him she was nothing. Was it a crime that she cried every time she looked at his clothes still hanging in their closet?


Answers to Exercise

1. Magnified Grief Reaction; clues: refusal to visit cemetery (10); continuous discussion of death (7).

2. Suspended Grief Reaction; clues: a minor event triggers grief (5).

3. Camouflaged Grief Reaction; clues: radical change in lifestyle (3); continuous self-destructive impulses (9).

4. Continuous Grief Reaction; clues: talks about death as if it had just happened (1); talks about death constantly (7); preserves useless material possessions (6).


Canine, J. D. (1990) I Can I Will: Maximum Living Bereavement Support Group Guide. Birmingham, Michigan. Ball Publishers.


| Grief Expert and Counselor

Dr. John D. Canine, Ed.D., Ph.D. is a noted author, professional speaker, educator and leading expert on grief and bereavement. He is currently the CEO of Maximum Living Consultants, Inc. and he...