Grief is a normal human emotional response to loss. Throughout our lifetimes, we experience loss of all kinds, small and large, tangible and intangible. When we don't take the time and effort to deal healthfully with our emotional responses to loss, we may experience what is known as unresolved grief. Unresolved grief can be defined as grief that lasts longer than expected, and causes problems in our normal, day-to-day functioning.
Many years ago, I started out as a grief therapist. As time went on, I found that my training with families who had lost a loved one translated to many other issues I encountered in therapy, because loss is universal and so is grief. In my work at a high school, I met with adolescents deeply entrenched in gangs with histories that bespoke significant loss: death, poverty, absent parents, immigration, constant moves, racism, and more. Their avoidance of and/or inability to cope with the losses in their life had resulted in a cumulative effect. The emotional buildup for some led to seeking escape from pain and acceptance by others. It would be easy to look at a kid in a gang and make all kinds of generalizations, but once I heard the story behind that tough exterior, it became clear that their short life was full of loss.
I've also met with several children having issues paying attention in class. They were labeled with behavior issues, or in some cases had even been diagnosed with ADHD or anxiety. After a few times meeting with the children and their families, I learned of significant loss, change, or trauma that preceded the "behavior" issues. The emotional realities of these kids' losses showed up in difficulty concentrating, intrusive thoughts, fear of losing another parent or loved one, or other intellectual difficulties that greatly impacted them in the classroom environment! What they needed wasn't medication or behavior modification, but the opportunity to talk about their losses, grieve what had happened, and be supported.
And this is what makes unresolved grief so tricky: it is cumulative; it can stack up over time. Maybe one loss by itself wasn't too much, but combined with several losses, the emotions can start to get more complicated. Without the proper coping techniques, a supportive environment, or maybe just the passage of time, our losses can have a detrimental effect on our health and well-being. Unresolved grief can have more than emotional implications; for some of us, the effects on our body or spirit may be more noticeable. Parents with unresolved grief had not only worse psychological health, but worse physical health, higher risk of sleep difficulties, increased visits to their doctors, and a greater likelihood of taking sick leave (Lannen, Wolfe, Kreicbergs, et al, Journal of Clinical Oncology, 12/08).
If you are concerned that you or someone you love may be experiencing unresolved grief, the best thing to do is find a qualified therapist or grief support group to accompany you on the journey of healing.
For more reading on the subject, I recommend the following resources:
"When Grief won't Relent," Article in the New York Times
"After a Death, the Pain won't go Away," Article in the New York Times
Heartwounds: The Impact of Unresolved Grief and Trauma on Relationships, book by Tian Dayton, PhD