What Is Complicated Grief & How Can I Recognize It?
Everyone grieves in their own time following a loss. And it does take time to heal and start to recover. There really is no rushing grief or the healing process.
It's normal to have ups and downs after you've lost someone that you love, and even to still find yourself occasionally having hard days several months or even years after a loss despite moving forward and focusing on healing.
In some cases, though, people struggle to heal enough to begin to move forward, even six months or a year after the fact.
This can be due to something called "complicated grief," which is somewhat common and might require treatment to manage.
In this post, we're going to go over everything you know about complicated grief, including discussing tips from certified anxiety coach Twanna Carter.
What Is Complicated Grief?
While the loss of someone you love is always overwhelming and can turn your world upside down, there is typically an end to a normal bereavement period that includes numbness, sorrow, guilt, and anger. Over time, these feelings ease; while you never stop missing the person you lost and you may feel sorrow sometimes, it becomes possible to accept the loss and move forward with your life.
Eventually, there's an adaptation to the new normal and it's possible to accept the reality of the new loss.
When you experience complicated grief (also known as "persistent complex bereavement disorder") the feelings of loss are nearly debilitating, and they don't get better even after a year. You might struggle to resume your life in any capacity as it was before.
Complicated grief can happen to anyone for any significant loss, but it may be more likely to happen in the following circumstances:
- The passing of a child
- The death of a close family member, or someone you were dependent on
- Loss of a support system (either friends or family), which sometimes happens when the person lost was the connection to the primary support group
- Social isolation
- Traumatic childhood experiences, including both neglect and abuse
- Significant stresses in life outside of the passing, including a chronic illness or financial struggles
- Past history of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, codependency, or separation anxiety
How to Recognize Complicated Grief
Grief can be so consuming that it may be difficult for someone to know when they're experiencing a "normal" bereavement, or when it's something else.
Anxiety coach Twanna Carter says that looking for consistency in grief is a tell-tale sign.
"In standard grief, it is normal to experience difficulty eating or difficulty sleeping. You may experience grief as waves. The waves will come and be really intense, and then they will ebb and flow," Carter explained. "But in between the waves you are typically not depressed, and you may even experience some happy moments. And over those months, those waves of grief come less and less. As you begin to adjust to living with the loss you'll start to feel the grief less."
This isn't true with complicated grief, however.
"With complicated grief, the grief may actually worsen over time," she said. "As much as a year or two later, the grieving may be more intense... A person's life centers around the loss. Or, alternately, you may also try to avoid anything that reminds you of the deceased."
If it's been more than a year and you're still experiencing overwhelming grief, complicated grief may be show up in the following ways:
- Focusing almost exclusively on your loved one's passing
- Either intense focus on the reminders of the lost loved one, or intense avoidance of reminders
- Persistent longing for the deceased even after a year, with an inability to accept the death
- Persistent numbness or a feeling of being emotionally detached
- Bitterness, anger, or rage about the loss
- Depression and feeling like life has no meaning without your lost loved one
- Lack of trust or inability to connect with others
- Struggling to carry out normal routines, even simple ones like doing laundry weekly
- Becoming addicted or relapsing in a past addiction in drugs, alcohol, or other addictive behaviors like gambling
- Withdrawing from others, including your support system
- Overwhelming guilt at the belief that you somehow could have prevented the death
- Feelings of wishing you had passed along with the loved one
Sometimes, people experiencing complicated grief may also have suicidal thoughts or ideation. If this is the case, please reach out and get help right away. The National Suicide Prevention Line is 1-800-273-8255.
What to Do About Complicated Grief?
First, we want to stress that there's nothing "wrong" with you if you have complicated grief, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. You'll just need to take additional steps to worth through it.
In order to do that, it's good to start by finding a qualified therapist and grief support groups.
"Both online or in person [support groups] both work," Carter said. "It may help you to be in the presence of others who can actually empathize with what you're going through. It reduces that isolation and aloneness."
She also recommends reaching out to a therapist or counselor if you've been intensely grieving for over a year, and if you're experiencing depression.
"Depression is feeling sad or depressed on a consistent basis. It is distinguished from normal grieving as it does not come in waves of grief."
When looking for a counselor, she recommends looking for someone that you "click" with and feel comfortable with. It's also good to find a counselor who has training with complicated grief.
And don't forget to make an effort to reach out to your support system. Friends and family can be incredibly helpful at keeping you from feeling isolated or alone.
Complicated grief is not an easy thing to tackle, but with the right treatment and management plan, it can be overcome. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of complicated grief, find a counselor or therapist near you who can help.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
Looking for resources to help with complicated grief? You can search for therapists who can offer treatment plans for complicated grief here.