After a major loss, it is normal to feel very painful emotions and for mourning to take its twists and turns. Everyone’s grief process is different. But generally when grief progresses on its usual course unimpeded, it heals naturally like a wound. The healing process may take time, but the loss integrates and the pain slowly subsides. This does not mean that the mourner ever gets over the loss; in fact, there will likely always be a part of the mourner that grieves the loss, but the capacity to move forward and engage in life also reemerges.
In complicated grief, something impedes the natural healing process. Time does not heal the wound so the mourner remains stuck in an endless loop of pain. Yearning for the loved one is so intense that it eclipses the desire for anything else in life, even years after the loss. Subsequently, life continues to lack meaning and purpose. There’s a lack of ability to envision the future without the loved one, and so the mourner cannot engage with any other parts of their lives or utilize the resources available in other relationships. Grief halts life from moving forward.
What Are Some Other Signs That Suggest Complicated Grief?
- Unbearable sadness
- Feeling unable to accept a loss
- Extreme focus on the loss
- Always avoiding reminders of the loss or strong attachment to mementoes
- Numbness long after the initial stages of loss
- Difficulty functioning
- Defensiveness when asked about the loss
- Withdrawing from social interactions
- Intense feelings of loneliness and emptiness
What Makes People Prone to Complicated Grief?
There are reasons why someone might experience complicated grief and be unable to utilize their grief to move forward. The nature of the loss can lend itself to complicated grief. For example, if there are multiple losses in a short time, if there was a strong dependence upon the loved one, or if the loss was sudden and traumatic, these are all factors that place someone at risk for complicated risk.
A previous history of mental health struggles might also predispose someone to complicated grief. A history of unresolved depression, anxiety, addictions and trauma contribute to emotions getting stuck in one’s system. In the same way, if someone has never learned to allow themselves to feel and work through emotions in their lives, they are more likely to get stuck in major experiences of grief.
People who excessively use avoidance to cope with loss also tend to get stuck in complicated grief. Although avoidance of things that remind people of their loss might initially work to curb the pain, if it is the only way people cope with their loss, it will impede the process of working through the grief.
Addressing Complicated Grief
Although simple grief can resolve on its own without intervention, complicated grief usually does not. It is a serious condition that research links with higher incidence of depression, suicide rates, health conditions, substance abuse, and social impairment. If you find yourself stuck for a long period of time in the grieving process without being able to move forward, it may be time to seek treatment for your grief.
People in this state might be reluctant to seek help because they believe that getting better means letting go of their loved one. Integrating grief does not mean letting go, however. There is a way to honor loss without forgetting.
People with prolonged and complicated grief do well in individual therapy and sometimes benefit from support groups where they can be with others who have experienced similar types of losses. Treatment for any co-morbid psychological symptoms may also be necessary to return to health. With proper psychological treatment, complicated grief can resolve. Mourners can go on to lead fulfilling and productive lives while finding a place to hold their loved one inside.