Functional and Dysfunctional Grief

By Chris Hammond

Not everyone grieves in the same way. After all, we are different people with different physical appearances, different perspectives, different experiences, different thoughts, different emotions, different backgrounds, and different attitudes. So why when it comes to grief do we believe that there is one correct way to handle the loss of a loved one? There are in fact a number of constructive ways to manage the feelings of grief and some destructive ways. Learning the difference between the two is far more important.

Denial. It is not uncommon for someone to struggle with believing that a loved one has passed away or to pretend that the person has not really passed. For a time being, the person may even imagine conversations with their loved one, knowing how they would most likely respond in a given situation. This usually does not last too long after passing and is more of the emotions catching up to reality. The seeds of dysfunction can begin however when the emotions fail to accept the reality and the person relies solely on how they feel instead of what they know.

Anger. This is a hard emotional reaction for some. Some people become angry with the person who passed away blaming them for not taking care of themselves, not paying attention, abandoning their family or not caring for those left behind. Others become angry with themselves for not saying good-bye, not being there, having a fight or argument just before or not meeting their needs. Oftentimes, the anger does not come out at themselves or the person who passed, rather the anger shows itself at the others who are left behind. Being aware of this strong emotion and not allowing it to overtake current relationships keeps the destructive far away.

Bargaining. “If only”, “I should have”, or “I wish” are all bargaining methods of trying to regain control of life after someone had passed. When a person engages in this type of thinking, they are really saying that they had control over the timing or the situation of the person passing away. This is a normal response and while it sounds a little bit dysfunctional, this thinking can actually be helpful. The feelings of denial and anger seem to consume our thoughts and life seems to be out of control. In contrast bargaining is a way to return life back to some level of control. The dysfunctional side of bargaining is a continual behavior of negotiating life in attempts to keep others alive.

Depression. It is perfectly normal to feel depressed after losing a loved one, to not feel this way at some point is to engage in dysfunctional behavior. Depression is a valley in life, a period of time when things seem to slow down, a time for being introspective, a time for self-evaluation, and a time to reflect on what is already gone. These moments can bring greater clarity and meaning to our lives which can later enhance the quality of life. Depending on how close the person was that passed, this period can last for months or years without becoming destructive.

Acceptance. Not that we don’t miss the person who is gone or that we don’t still wish the person was alive, but at some point there is a realization that life goes on and we can be happy again. While happiness seemed elusive before, it now becomes more frequent and the simple things seem to bring us joy again. It is almost as if we return to a better form of ourselves as a result of the experience from having lost a loved one. Better in that we appreciated life more, appreciate our loved ones more, appreciate the time we have with others more and appreciate the person who passed more. The only dysfunction is never feeling these feelings again, in getting stuck in one of the other emotions.

Grief is normal and healthy. It can take on many different forms depending on the person experiencing the grief and the person having passed. The entire process can last a few weeks, months, or years and should not be rushed as if another task to finish. This is a valuable time of insight, reflection and understanding that can improve the quality of your life going forward.


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About the author- Chris Hammond is a Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern at LifeWorks Group w/ over 15 years of experience as a counselor, mentor & teacher for children, teenagers & adults.

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