Obsessive Rumination In Grief: What Are They And How Do They Appear

These recurring thoughts appear in our consciousness again and again after losing someone.

Obsessive rumination in grief

A grieving process is a complex process both on a psychological and emotional level, which we face when we lose a loved one (for example, in a death, separation…).

Each person lives it in their own way, although it is true that many times we need professional help to overcome this vital stage.

On the other hand, obsessive ruminations in grief occur in many people. But what do these consist of? What characteristics do they have? How do they appear? Do they have any psychological function? What examples of them do we know? In this article we will answer all these questions.

Obsessive rumination in grief: characteristics

Before we get into the topic of obsessive ruminations in grief, let’s remember what obsessive ruminations are. These consist of a type of repetitive thinking, which generates anxiety and discomfort, and which does not allow us to reach any valid conclusion (in short, it is about turning over persistent ideas).

In grieving processes (when a family member or friend dies, in a separation or divorce, etc.), this type of rumination is frequent.

Regarding their characteristics, we know that they entail a lack of action in the person who suffers them (that is, passivity), as well as a lack of expression of affection and a loss of the general vision of things (because with them, we focus in a single part of reality).

How do they appear?

How do obsessive ruminations appear in the duel? We know that these are manifested, frequently, through uncontrolled and intrusive thoughts : they emerge in consciousness without our trying, and without warning.

The forms they adopt are, of the type: “What if …”, “If I could go back …”, “It’s all my fault”, “If I had acted differently …”, “I can’t live without him / her”, “No I can live without him / her ”, etc.

These thoughts appear in the mind of the person in a recurring (repetitive) way, and they tell us about aspects, situations or elements that our mind cannot yet accept ; All of this is related to three main elements: the circumstances of that person’s death, the relationship we have lost, and the consequences of that loss.

How do they work?

Obsessive ruminations in grief are manifested through a searching tendency; that is, through them, we explore certain elements or circumstances that (we hope) explain or justify the cause of death of that person we have lost.

We have given some examples of such ruminations; We also know that these often take the form of a question. In this way, through them we ask ourselves: Why? As was? What happened?

Obsessive ruminations in grief are also manifested through a great fixation for the details that accompany the death of that person ; most of the time these are insignificant details or are not really important.

Thus, the “little voice” (an alien, imagined voice) that asks us, ourselves, becomes constant: What if…? (“And if I had not acted like that, and if I had fired, and if I had told her I loved her, what if …”).

Through these ruminations, we become obsessed with answering questions that surely do not have an answer, believing that this answer will bring us a feeling of relief (when in reality, it does not have to be the case).


On the other hand, through these intrusive thoughts we focus on the negative symptoms that have arisen as a result of the death for which we are grieving, as well as the possible causes and consequences of it.

We also focus – and this is very common -, through these thoughts, on trying to understand why this death (we look for a meaning to it, a meaning). The result of all these processes is that we tend to go over and over things or ideas without arriving at any clear (or healing) answer, wasting our mood and energy.

The obsession of rumination

On the other hand, obsessive ruminations in grief, as the name suggests, are based on obsession. In obsessions, the experience of reality is mental; what does that mean? That we do not live, but we think about living. Thus, everything is focused on our mind, on turning things around, looking for answers, wandering … without actually putting anything into practice.

In this mental experience, we focus on a specific aspect of our reality (or some of them); in this case, aspects related to the death of the deceased person, or to our grieving process. As a result of all this, what happens is that we lose the general vision of the situation ; we lose a large part of reality, due to this fixation on carefully analyzing only a part of it (many times, a tiny part of it).

In this way, we lose a lot of relevant information (information that, everything is said, for us at that moment does not make sense or importance). This results in a loss of perspective and objectivity, and a fragmented and reductionist view of what is really happening around us.

Thus, we can characterize (or define) the obsession typical of obsessive ruminations in grief, as a rigid and inflexible cognitive fixation, which does not allow us to advance in our grief process and which, in addition, hinders a healthy and adaptive process.

Consequences of rumination

The fixation on only one part of reality that has as a direct consequence an inaction on our part ; in this way, we do not act, we only think (rather than thinking, we “get confused” in certain types of thinking).

To this inaction (or passivity), a great feeling of loneliness is added, characteristic of this vital stage that we are living, and which is mourning.

In this way, people who have frequent obsessive rumination during grief tend to isolate themselves, which prevents them from connecting with their environment (this includes things around them, people, the landscape …) and with themselves.

Impact on behavior

Obsessive ruminations in grief also have an impact on the behavior of the person who is experiencing this process, and that translates into: looking at the ground, talking to oneself (or the circumstances), losing contact with the environment and with oneself themselves, etc.

Regarding the latter, it frequently happens that the person has difficulties to connect with his subjective experience and with what he is explaining to others.

Psychological functions

However, despite the fact that obsessive ruminations in grief are a pathological mechanism, in a certain way, it is also true that they fulfill a series of psychological functions. This is so because the mind, although it sometimes plays its “tricks” on us, many times will have the function of protecting itself (or avoiding suffering).

These functions, proposed by Payás (2008), are classified into three large groups: related to the trauma of death, related to bonding, and related to the denial of pain. Let’s see what functions correspond to each group and what each of them consists of:

1. In relation to the trauma of death

In this case, the psychological functions of obsessive rumination are twofold: to improve predictability (of what will happen), and to seek meaning at death.

2. In relation to the relationship

Here we also find two functions: on the one hand, to repair the feeling of guilt, and on the other, to continue with the bond (relationship) with that person who is no longer there.

3. In relation to denial of pain

Finally, in the third group we find the following functions of rumination: they offer a sense of control and stability and stabilize the fragile and dependent ego that has remained after the tragic event.

Bibliographic references:

  • Freeston, MH and Ladouceur, R. (1997). Analysis and treatment of obsessions. In VE Caballo (Dir.), Manual for the cognitive-behavioral treatment of psychological disorders (Vol. 1, pp. 137-169). Madrid: XXI century.
  • Payás, A. (2008). Psychological functions and treatment of obsessive rumination in grief. Rev. Asoc. Esp. Neuropsiq., 28 (102): 307-323.

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