Coping with Complicated Grief: Finding Your Way Through Persistent and Severe Emotions

Key Takeaways:

  • Understanding Complicated Grief: Complicated grief is a prolonged, intense mourning process that disrupts daily life, requiring professional support.
  • Recognizing Symptoms and Differences: It’s characterized by persistent emotional distress, an extreme focus on the loss, and difficulties in daily functioning, distinct from normal grief.
  • Risk factors: Sudden loss, unresolved issues, mental health history, lack of support.
  • Therapy Approaches and Group Support: Professional treatments, including CBT and EMDR, along with group support, are crucial for healing from complicated grief.

The loss of a loved one can be utterly devastating. While normal grief gradually fades over time, some find themselves trapped in endless cycles of intense sorrow, detachment, and searing emotional pain that shows no signs of easing.

If you’ve found that grieving has stolen all sense of meaning and purpose from life itself, leaving you isolated and struggling to perform daily tasks, you may be facing what experts call “complicated grief.”

The good news is that compassionate professionals and treatment options are available to help ease your suffering. This article will walk you through understanding symptoms and getting the right support to rediscover light within the darkness of grief’s long shadow.

Understanding Complicated Grief

A widower with complicated grief sitting alone in their armchair, spaced out thinking about the loss of a loved one

Complicated grief, sometimes called persistent complex bereavement disorder, occurs when the typical mourning process goes awry, leaving the bereaved stuck in cycles of intense suffering. Unlike normal grief, the painful emotions of complicated grief linger or worsen over time without relief.

What distinguishes complicated grief?

  • Persistent focus on the loss makes it difficult to resume normal life activities.
  • Severe emotional distress like bitterness, detachment, and loss of self-worth.
  • Inability to accept the permanence of death months or years later.
  • Isolation, destructive behaviours, or sense life has lost all purpose/meaning.

While everyone’s grief is unique, experts define complicated grief as struggling with daily functioning due to debilitating grief symptoms for at least 12 months after a death in adults or 6 months in children.

What causes complicated grief?

Pinpointing exact causes is difficult, but risk factors include:

  • Traumatic death – homicide, suicide, accident, natural disaster
  • Lack of social support post-loss leading to isolation
  • History of depression or trauma that resurfaces

Roughly 7-10% of bereaved adults and 5-10% of bereaved children/teens will develop prolonged grief disorder complications interfering with their ability to heal.

Is it grief, clinical depression, or both?

  • There is often an overlap in symptoms.
  • But complicated grief is specifically tied to inability to accept and adapt to loss.
  • Clinical depression may require additional treatment beyond grief therapy.

Accurate diagnosis is crucial to finding the right support and treatment approach. We’ll explore that more in the next section.

For now, know that overpowering, enduring grief coupled with isolation rarely resolves on its own. Professional assistance combined with self-care and social support can help lift the fog to restore hope for the future.

Recognizing the Symptoms & Differences

Determining whether grief has become complicated rather than a typical mourning process can help guide the next steps for healing. Here are key symptoms that point to possible complications:

  • Persistent severe emotional distress – relentless feelings of bitterness, guilt, detachment, emptiness
  • Extreme focus on the loss – constant rumination or avoidance of reminders
  • Inability to move forward – feeling life is meaningless without a loved one
  • Isolation and destructive behaviours– addiction, recklessness, self-harm
  • Problems performing daily responsibilities – can’t fulfill work/family duties

How is complicated grief different?

While grieving a loss is painful for everyone, there are noticeable differences in cases of complicated grief:

Normal GriefComplicated Grief
Emotions gradually become less intense over timeDisabling emotions remain powerful/frequent for years
Fond memories provide some comfortThoughts of loved ones only bring anguish
Over time, able to enjoy life againFeeling life is empty/meaningless without a loved one
Can function fairly typically after the initial periodSignificantly impaired ability to work/connect for a prolonged time

Pay attention if a grieving loved one’s suffering is only growing worse or completely static rather than slowly easing. That likely signals professional support is needed for complicated grief recovery.

Don’t lose hope, though – with an accurate understanding of the condition and proper treatment, their prognosis for reconciling the loss can drastically improve.

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Real-Life Experiences

To understand complicated grief more deeply, it helps to step into the shoes of those living with it. Here is one story of grief gone awry, along with lessons learned:

After Eva’s daughter Amy passed away unexpectedly in a car accident, she felt completely lost. Her whole world collapsed in an instant. The acute pain never subsided over years. She says, “I constantly lived in obsessive ‘what ifs’ about the accident. I just couldn’t accept that my baby was gone forever.”

Eva quit her job, withdrew from friends, and ruminated endlessly about Amy’s death. She says, “I lost all sense of purpose. My depression, anxiety and guilt kept worsening until I had frequent suicidal thoughts.”

What helped Eva heal?

  • Finding a bereavement support group for parents who’d lost children
  • Working with a therapist specializing in complicated grief treatment
  • Practicing self-care to boost mood, like journaling and exercising
  • Letting herself feel hope about enjoying life again without guilt

After much work, Eva says she can now think of Amy with less acute pain, remember the good times, and devote herself to new passions, like volunteering to help troubled teens. Her grief still resurfaces but no longer rules her life.

Key takeaways

  • Don’t underestimate grief’s staying power – get help early
  • Specialized therapy and support groups have huge impacts
  • Boosting overall mental and physical health aids grieving
  • Finding purpose again is possible even if loss leaves a hole in your heart

Understanding Complicated Grief

If complicated grief symptoms linger longer than 12 months and disrupt your ability to function, seeking professional support is strongly advised. The good news is that highly effective treatment options exist, combining therapy, social support groups, and self-care skills.

Therapy Approaches

Working with a licensed grief counsellor or psychotherapist specializing in complicated grief can make a major difference through the following:

  • Helping identify stuck points delaying adapting to the loss
  • Processing traumatic aspects of death using EMDR therapy
  • Coping with secondary losses – financial/lifestyle changes
  • Practicing mindset and behaviour changes to reengage life
  • Managing anxiety, depression and improving sleep

Mental health professionals often use elements of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with an added focus on directly addressing the loss. Exploring emotions while recalibrating thoughts and behaviours can relieve complicated grief.

Group Support

Connecting with others experiencing prolonged grief through support groups can also accelerate healing by:

  • Normalizing symptoms
  • Reducing isolation and loneliness
  • Learning coping tips from those further into their grief journeys
  • Gaining hope through shared stories of overcoming devastating losses

Combined approaches addressing mindsets, behaviours and social connections have proven most effective. Through professional support, seemingly endless grief can transform into manageable waves rather than a perpetual tsunami.

Reach out today about counselling for complicated grief support. Our compassionate team offers in-person therapy and secure video sessions across BC and Ontario.

Finding Meaning and Purpose After Loss

Recovering from the death of a cherished person, you may feel a gaping void where your sense of meaning and purpose once resided. The cold reality of a life no longer illuminated by their love seems intolerable.

The mere idea that you could rediscover passion, delight, or aspirations again one day likely rings hollow in the pit of sorrow. How can colour exist without the sun?

Yet the fog does eventually begin to lift for many traversing the complicated grief journey with professional and social support. While the loss leaves an unfillable space, people learn to carry the grief differently over time – with lighter steps fueled by revived meaning rooted in honour and healing.

Steps to Rediscover Meaning

The path varies for each griever, but guideposts exist:

  • Let memories bring more comfort than pain, not just anguish
  • Identify activities, people, and places that still spark some joy
  • Explore what matters now, considering a forever-changed worldview
  • Recognize the harm of self-destructive coping & shift to positive skills
  • Allow cathartic creative expression – writing, music, art, exercise
  • Help/connect with others suffering from trauma or loss
  • Consider envisioning lost loved one at peace, lessening any worry about them
  • Trust in their enduring spiritual presence even if they are no longer physically here

Life without someone enormously special is irrevocably different, but light still exists if you nourish the soul. Purpose can blossom again when banishing the notion that finding delight dishonours those now only present in spirit.

Other Types of Grief

While any major loss can trigger complicated grief, certain grief situations make adapting more difficult for some:

Delayed Grief

Rather than working through painful emotions, people repress reactions in delaying grieving through:

  • Avoiding processing the loss
  • Minimizing the importance of the loss
  • Keeping perpetually busy as a distraction
  • Masking true feelings with other mood states like anger

Repressed grief often resurfaces later, sometimes as complicated grief. Facing the loss sooner helps prevent future emotional health struggles.

Disenfranchised Grief

When social stigma makes a griever feel their loss isn’t valued, or they lack “permission” to mourn openly:

  • Cultural norms about the lost person’s identity
  • Circumstances, the death itself
  • Griever’s marginalized identity

This can spur shame, isolation and self-blame – fueling complicated grief risks. Finding safe spaces for empathetic support aids coping.

Traumatic Grief

Deaths caused by homicide, suicide or severe accidents often inflict deep psychological wounds (PTSD) on survivors struggling to process horrific final events. Professional counselling provides coping tools to avoid a descent into disabling traumatic grief.

Counselling Services in BC and ON

Our clinic offers specialized counselling services if you’re in British Columbia or Ontario and are looking for longer-term support. Our counsellors and psychotherapists are trained to help you navigate abuse’s emotional and psychological impacts. We provide a safe, confidential space where you can begin your healing journey.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • Normal grief brings acute sadness, anger, disbelief and yearning for the deceased. But the intensity lessens, allowing life to regain enjoyment over time.
  • Complicated grief persists with little relief - constant anguish, isolation, destructive behaviours, inability to accept the loss as permanent, meaninglessness, and impairment in responsibilities.

Research shows symptoms spanning more than 12 months in adults or 6+ months in children signals complicated grieving processes requiring support. The condition can last for years or decades without treatment.

  • Unexpected/traumatic death
  • Lack of social support networks
  • Past personal history with depression, anxiety or trauma
  • Financial or lifestyle instability due to loss

Listen without judgment. Encourage professional help and offer to accompany them. Provide practical help like meals, rides, and household duties. Foster social connection. Uplift through compassion without telling them to “just move on.”

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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