What is Complicated Grief?
It’s normal to feel grief after a loved one dies. Typically, this period of grief eventually passes and the individual is able to move on. However, in the case of complicated grief disorder, the feeling of loss is lasting and damaging. This disorder may also be called persistent complex bereavement disorder and can be extremely debilitating. But, with treatment, it’s possible to resolve complicated grief.
Complicated grief can inhibit someone from moving on after the death of a loved one for months or years. One is generally considered to have complicated grief disorder if they’re struggling to move on more than six months to a year after a loved one’s death.
Complicated grief disorder can impact every aspect of a person’s life, from their career to their social interactions. It’s similar to depression in that it can cause people to lose their sense of worth and feel suicidal. Treatment for complicated grief disorder is, therefore, extremely important to avoid self-harm and other severe complications.
The death of a loved one is the main trigger for complicated grief disorder. However, there are other factors that can make an individual more prone to complicated grief. These include:
- Genetic predisposition
- Personality traits
- Body chemistry
- Environmental factors
- Other mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression
Signs of Complicated Grief
In the first few months after the death of a loved one, the signs of complicated grief are generally identical to those of normal grief. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to identify complicated grief in the period immediately following a loss. At this time, any type of grief is typically intense and can impact all areas of a person’s life.
Complicated grief disorder may become apparent if the feelings of grief become more severe over time. If the grief has persisted rather than abated after six months, it’s a sign that complicated grief could be present.
After the initial, expected period of grief has passed, the following signs could indicate complicated grief disorder:
- Intense, overwhelming, and lasting sadness
- An obsession with the person who has passed
- Pessimism about the future and life as a whole
- Trouble sleeping
- A short temper and irritability
- An unwillingness to leave the house
- Failing to manage day-to-day obligations (work, school, family, etc.)
- Recklessness or impulsivity
- Suicidal thoughts, words, and/or actions
- An attachment to reminders of the person who has passed
- An aversion to reminders of the person who has passed
If the individual had a preexisting mental condition, such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc., the symptoms of that condition may worsen with the onset of complicated grief disorder.
How is Complicated Grief Treated?
The best treatment method for complicated grief disorder can vary from patient to patient. It’s important to start by seeing a doctor if your feelings of grief are lasting and interfering with your day-to-day life. You can then begin a treatment plan, which may include therapy, medications, or a combination of both.
Therapy is one of the main treatment options for complicated grief. Psychotherapy, which is also often used in the treatment of depression and PTSD, may help ease the symptoms of this disorder. In psychotherapy, you can learn more about complicated grief, talk about and process your emotions, and develop healthy coping skills. Over time, psychotherapy can help lower feelings of guilt and sadness, as well as allow you to adjust your life goals after the death of a loved one.
While there are no medications used exclusively for the treatment of complicated grief disorder, medications for anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders may help people with complicated grief recover. Antidepressants can be particularly helpful in easing brain chemical imbalances that trigger depression and exacerbate feelings of grief. Discuss your treatment options with your doctor to determine if medications could be right for you.
WHEN TO SEE A MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONAL
Mental health issues are real, common, and treatable. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness and 20% of those are considered serious. 17% of 6-17 year olds experience a mental health disorder. So the first thing to remember is this: You are not alone.
If you feel that you are suffering from a mental illness, and particularly if those issues are preventing you from living life to the full or feeling yourself, you may want to consider professional help which can make an enormous difference.
And to be clear, you don't need to be going through a crisis in order to justify getting help. In fact, it can be advantageous from a treatment perspective to identify and deal with issues early and before they have a major impact on your life. Either way you should feel encouraged and able to seek help however you are feeling.
Mental health professionals such as licensed therapist can help in a range of ways including:
- Help you identify where, when, and how issues arise
- Develop coping strategies for specific symptoms and issues
- Encourage resilience and self-management
- Identify and change negative behaviors
- Identify and encourage positive behaviors
- Heal pain from past trauma
- Figure out goals and waypoints
- Build self-confidence
Treatment for mental health issues, and psychotherapy (sometimes known as 'talk therapy') in particular, frequently helps people to feel better, manage, and even get rid of their symptoms. For example, did you know that over 80% of people treated for depression materially improve? Or that treatment for panic disorder has a 90% success rate?
Other treatment options include medication which, in some cases, can be highly effective when administered in combination with psychotherapy.
So what is psychotherapy? It involves talking about your problems and concerns with a mental health professional. It can take lots of forms, including individual, group, couples and family sessions. Often, people see their therapists once a week for 50 minutes to start with and then reducing frequency as time goes on and issues subside. Treatment can be as short as a few weeks or as long as a few years depending on your particular situation and response.
Never think that getting help is a sign of weakness. It isn't. In fact, it can be a sign of strength and maturity to take the steps necessary to becoming you again and getting your life back on track.
WHEN TO GET EMERGENCY HELP
Are you in distress? If so, or if you think that you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
Also consider these options if you're having suicidal thoughts:
- Call your mental health specialist.
- Call a suicide hotline number — in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
- Seek help from your primary doctor or other health care provider.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
If a loved one or friend is in danger of attempting suicide or has made an attempt:
- Make sure someone stays with that person.
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
- Or, if you can do so safely, take the person to the nearest hospital emergency room.