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What is Complicated Grief and How is it Treated?

Mary-Lauren O’Crowley, MA, NCC, LPC

Complicated grief is a term used for grief that is more intense, lasts longer, and affects an individual more than typical grief. It may disrupt someone’s routine activities as they are preoccupied with feelings of loneliness, anger, and longing for their departed loved one. Losing a loved one is, unfortunately, one of the most common, yet distressing experiences, and is typically followed by a period of grief, sorrow, guilt, or anger. These feelings, however, often become less intense with time. But for some, these feelings of bereavement and sorrow don’t go away and may even become more exaggerated. This debilitating and persistent form of grief is called complicated grief. 

Symptoms of Complicated Grief

It is crucial to pay attention to your mental health and wellbeing if you have recently lost a loved one. Temporary feelings of grief, anger, isolation, and even numbing are normal in these situations; however, if the feelings become so severe that you are unable to meet your basic needs or carry out daily functions, it can have a devastating effect on your emotional and physical health. Many symptoms of complicated grief are similar to that of normal bereavement during the initial stages but these do not fade away or come and go in waves like typical grief but rather linger or even get worse as time pass. Some of the symptoms that people with complicated grief may experience are: 

  • Intense agonizing pain and sorrow over the loss
  • Extreme focus on the death of your loved ones
  • Ignoring your daily activities or tasks 
  • Avoidance, withdrawal from social activities, and lack of trust in others
  • Difficulty accepting your loss
  • Numbness
  • Feelings of purposelessness or hopelessness
  • Intense longing for the departed ones
  • Lack of positivity in life 
  • Sadness, depression, guilt, and self-blaming 

If these symptoms do not fade over the course of the bereavement or even feel as if they are worsening, it is best to consult a mental health professional. 

Risk Factors for Complicated Grief

Prolonged or complicated grief occurs more often in women and older adults. Some of the factors which may take part in prolonging and exacerbating a typical grieving process may include: 

  • The unexpected and sudden death of a loved one suddenly such as a murder or a car accident 
  • Death of a child 
  • Dependence upon the deceased person
  • Childhood traumas such as neglect or child abuse
  • History of anxiety, depression, or separation
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other mental illnesses 
  • History of substance use disorder such as narcotics

Prevention and Treatment 

Complicated grief disorder can be treated or even prevented, but it is best to seek out the help of a mental health provider in order to process the loss. The care and support from friends and family members may also help to prevent prolonged grief. It is true what they say: we must feel to heal. Talking about the problem rather than ignoring it or allowing yourself to be overcome by it can make all of the difference. Depending on the therapist or the type of therapy employed, bereavement counseling can help to target negative thoughts, unhealthy behaviors, and other elements that often accompany significant loss. Group therapy may also be recommended, as it allows for people with similar experiences to come together and support one another. If symptoms still do not resolve or an additional treatment method is desired, medications like SSRIs can also prove useful in the management of symptoms. 

If you or someone you know is struggling to process the loss of a loved one, please reach out to the intake specialists at Symmetry Counseling today to get paired with a therapist who can help.





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