Understanding Maladaptive Grief: Why Grieving Can Turn to Depression, Isolation, or Overwhelm

While there is generally not one right way to grieve, there ARE ways that grieving can go wrong.

Instead of letting the grieving process run its natural course, people sometimes try to run away from the pain, and it is in these cases that grief can turn into depression, isolation, or overwhelm.

Typically these kinds of reactions to loss or grief happen because the natural grieving process is blocked, or because a person finds themselves without the internal resources or the external support to cope with the intensity of their own emotions.

In such instances, people may try to numb their pain by drinking, or try to distract themselves by cutting, or they may end up feeling stuck in a chronic state of depression, helplessness, or hopelessness.

These are the times when seeking help from a therapist would be beneficial.

Grieving Can Invoke Earlier Losses:

Typically what I find in my work as a therapist is that people who end up crumbling underneath their pain, do so because the recent loss they have experienced, re-invokes an old trauma or an earlier state of helplessness and aloneness they have not yet dealt with.

If, for example, it was not okay for me to cry in my family when I was growing up, then when grief calls upon me to release my pain by crying, I get blocked and have no resource to deal with it.


If I was frequently on my own or let down by others when I was growing up, then when grief calls upon me to lean on others or seek help, I cannot follow its command.

In such instances the challenge that grieving a loss presents me with cannot be faced without a call to resolve other unresolved issues first.

For me to cry, for example, I would first need to deal with the original situation or series of experiences that taught me to be ashamed of my tears.


For me to reach out for help and lean on others I would first have to address the reasons why I equated my sense of safety with being self-reliant and developed a distaste for depending on others.

These kinds of early glitches in my childhood or formative years that taught me that it is not safe to simply be myself often have an interpersonal origin.

Maladaptive Grief Often Involves Past Interpersonal Traumas or Disappointments:

It was because others responded to my crying or to my attempts to reach out for help with disdain, indifference, silence, awkwardness, or what have you, that I was forced to leave aspects of myself behind.

For this reason, any attempt to reclaim my lost parts, and disowned resources, is going to re-invoke old fears of others leaving me, turning away from me with disgust, or rejecting me in some way.

In other words, the reason I cannot fully grieve, is that I have not resolved old interpersonal fears and therefore cannot yet take ownership of certain of my human qualities which were abandoned due to those fears.

In my attempt to keep others pleased or keep others near, I contorted myself and became a little less whole and a little less human in the process.

Now when these abandoned qualities are called for, I am forced to either numb myself and distract myself, or to face the shame or aloneness which these now alien emotions or needs threaten to overwhelm me with.


Video Clip from recent presentation I did on maladaptive grief:


How to Deal with Maladaptive Grief:

If you or someone you know have experienced losses that they have not been able to deal with according to the principles described in my earlier blog post (Best Ways to Deal with Grief and Loss), I would recommend that you seek professional help.

You may not notice that you or your friend are really grieving, but may instead notice that you are acting in any number of ways that are either not characteristic of you or destructive to you:

  • You may be drinking more than usual
  • You may be more promiscuous or more careless about the relationships you get into
  • You may become morbid, suicidal, or nihilistic about life
  • You may experience panic attacks, health worries, or other anxieties about seemingly unrelated things
  • You may feel numb, dead inside, or like an observer to life
  • You may be cutting yourself or engaging in activities that you know are self-destructive
  • You may feel chronically depressed or isolate yourself more from friends

Grieving a loss should not involve any of these behaviors, at least not for an extended period of time.

If you feel stuck in your grief and unable to either deal with the pain on your own or talk about it with others, you should seek help.

Resources if You Are Grieving:

In Houston we have several agencies that provide free grief and bereavement support groups:

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Houston, Texas, who can help you recover from old wounds and traumas that may be complicating your grieving process.