Grief is an unavoidable and normal experience. Most people experiencing normal grief and bereavement have a period of sorrow, numbness, and even guilt and anger. Gradually these feelings ease, and it's possible to accept loss and move forward.
For some people, feelings of loss are debilitating and don't improve even after time passes. This is known as complicated grief. In complicated grief, painful emotions are so long lasting and severe that you have trouble accepting the loss and resuming your own life. It can take intense forms that surprise a bereaved person, including forms that in other circumstances would be called a psychiatric disorder. In some cases, psychiatric treatment may help.
Even normal bereavement can produce complicated grief. Whether that happens depends on how a person copes, not just with trauma, but with loss. For anyone who could not respond to earlier losses without losing emotional equilibrium, complicated grief becomes a greater danger. So a person with a history of depression, anxiety disorders, or a personality disorder is more likely to suffer complicated grief after bereavement, as well as PTSD after a traumatic experience.
If you have complicated grief, seek treatment. It can help you come to terms with your loss and reclaim a sense of acceptance and peace.
Treatment of complicated grief often relies on the idea that grieving is an experience to be worked through. Some people are thought to be stuck and unable to free themselves because of problems arising from emotional instability, previous losses, or difficulties in their relationship with the person who has died. A promising treatment called traumatic grief therapy uses cognitive behavioral methods for traumatic symptoms and stress relief, along with interpersonal techniques to encourage re-engagement with the world.
Complicated grief can affect you physically, mentally and socially. Without appropriate treatment, these complications can include:
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
- Increased risk of physical illness, including heart disease, cancer and high blood pressure
- Long-term difficulty with daily living
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Substance abuse
- Nicotine use, such as smoking