Complicated Grief

What is Complicated Grief?

This disorder can occur when a close relative, spouse or friend of an individual passes away and the person is unable to stop grieving for their loved one. When individuals cannot accept their loss they are incapable of adapting to life without their loved one.

Although the cause of complicated grief is not fully known, there are several factors that may contribute to this disorder. These circumstances include an individual’s body chemistry, their personality, the environment in which they live and genetic influences. People who have been diagnosed with depression can have heightened depression symptoms when they are also afflicted with complicated grief. Individuals who have lost a loved one suddenly or in a tragic accident are at a higher risk of developing complicated grief.

What are the Symptoms of Complicated Grief?

People who suffer from complicated grief continue to grieve long after a normal grieving period, often for months or years, and it is not uncommon for their grieving to become worse.

Symptoms include

Feeling numb or disconnected, having sorrowful feelings and a constant longing for the person who passed away. They are unable to enjoy life and they lack motivation. Complicated grief controls a person’s emotions and they often feel bitter, agitated or irritable. Individuals have a hard time focusing on anything else except their loved one they have lost.

Complicated Grief Causes

While the overarching trigger of complicated grief is the loss of a loved one, there are multiple antecedents that serve as risk factors. Regarding the loss itself, there are attributes that can increase the likelihood of developing complicated grief. These include the loss of a child; the occurrence of a secondary loss, such as financial support and/or housing with the death of the loved one, which is most prevalent with the unexpected loss of a parent; or if the loss was sudden, as in a car accident or other unforeseen occurrence. A history of depression or other mental illness may increase the risk of complicated grief as well. The presence of other long-standing issues are risk factors as well, including a history of childhood trauma, and lack of resilience in regard to life changes.

Also, significant difficulty understanding the loss and not having the ability to effectively talk about the loss are risk factors in complicated grief. Additionally, if the loss happens during times of significant stress, the chances of developing complicated grief are increased. Similar to depression, there are other components to consider in terms of developing complicated grief including genetic predisposition and body chemistry.

How is Complicated Grief Treated?

Treatment options for people who suffer from complicated grief often involve therapy in the form of psychological counseling. While in therapy, individuals are often asked to talk about the death of their loved one and to converse out loud with the person they lost. Individuals will learn steps they can take to cope with their loss and how to let go of feelings of guilt. A counselor teaches individuals how to control the negative emotions that plague them every day. People who have complicated grief and clinical depression may be prescribed an antidepressant medication.

Complicated Grief Prevention

As there are many factors that can influence the development of complicated grief, there are multiple steps that can be taken to help decrease the risk of its development after losing a loved one. Having a support network available immediately after the loss can be very effective in heading off complicated grief. Counseling with a mental health professional is also beneficial. This is especially important in instances where a support network is not available and there is difficulty in articulating the loss and its meaning. Additionally, addressing long-standing mental health issues can significantly reduce the risk of developing complicated grief. With instances where there are a combination of significant risk factors, a multidisciplinary approach, including a combination of the aforementioned strategies implemented early after the loss, can be effective in preventing complicated grief.

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Last Reviewed:
September 19, 2016
Last Updated:
December 08, 2017