Distorted and conflicted mourning

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Distorted and conflicted mourning have similarities. Conflicted mourning is highlighted by ambivalence in a relationship. Distorted grief also involves ambivalence; however, what differentiates the two is the intensity of specific emotions in the latter. Intense manifestations of guilt and anger are the primary grief responses in distorted grief. Research from Parkes and Weiss (1983) and Rando (1993) offers insight into these mourning responses. All human relationships have ambivalence (i.e., love, hate features). Bereaved individuals often have to deal with feelings of guilt after a death because they loved the person who died, but also disliked him or her at times. In conflicted grief the degree or intensity of ambivalence is much stronger and more difficult to resolve.

The death of a child is an example when both conflicted and distorted grief can occur. Parents invest a great degree of themselves in their children. Children represent the best and the worst features of the parents. These relationships are ripe for high degrees of ambivalence. Most parents have at least some negative thoughts and feelings about their children, and it is this reality of the normal parental relationship that can cause difficulty in grief resolution. In instances where children suffer untimely deaths, distorted and intense expressions of guilt and/or anger are often the main features of parental grief. Before normal grief work can be addressed, these emotions need attention. An example of a loss that manifested both distorted and conflicted grief was the murder of an adolescent female by her boyfriend on the porch of her home while her parents watched.

The girl's death was an assault and an outrage in every respect. For almost two years it involved every segment of the community, the legal system, and a network of counselling and medical professionals. Aspects of distorted grief were the first dimensions that had to be addressed. Nine months were needed just to address the extreme feelings and manifestations of anger. As noted above, the hallmark of distorted grief is anger or guilt that becomes extreme and goes beyond the normal response. Intentional murder of one's child highly predisposes parents to distorted manifestations of grief. Following the conviction of the perpetrator, the anger was somewhat dissipated; however, grief manifestations moved immediately to distorted feelings of guilt. The murder had happened quickly, and with little warning; yet, as parents, they tormented themselves with questions of why they could not have protected their daughter on their own property. The guilt was never resolved, and the anger continued to surface each time parole was considered for the convicted murderer. In addition to distorted manifestations, conflicted guilt was also part of the experience. As discussed, ambivalence in a relationship is a hallmark feature of conflicted grief. This was a highly ambivalent relationship. Developmentally their daughter was involved in a period of normal rebellion, and there were many volatile disagreements that had never been resolved. One of the major sources of tension had been her relationship with the boy who murdered her. For two years her parents had fought to keep her away from him, as his reputation for 'trouble' was well known. She had defied her parents on many occasions and met with him behind their backs. When she finally decided she did not want to be associated with him any more, he could not tolerate the rejection and killed her.

From this example, it is possible to understand the difficulties certain persons may have resolving grief or having a normal experience with it. For some the distortions can be addressed and resolved, and a normal process of bereavement facilitated; yet for others, the distortions continue to emerge for an indefinite period, hindering healthy resolution and reinvestment into meaningful living.

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