Losing someone we love can be a profoundly painful experience. The loss of a loved one can create countless feelings and emotions that most people are ill-prepared to manage.
There are many types of grief, from normal grief, ambiguous loss (non-death losses) to anticipatory grief; it is clear there is no ‘one size fits all’ where grief is concerned.
The grieving process is also markedly different for each individual.
Typically, grief experts say that the devastation of normal grief (which follows an expected pattern of mourning within a specific time frame) usually gets easier to manage within three years.
However, other grief experts believe that grief symptoms ease after around eighteen months post-bereavement.
A bereaved person tends to experience normal grief symptoms and goes through a period of numbness, intense sorrow, and sometimes anger and guilt.
The emotional pain that a grieving person experiences can fluctuate between hope and hopelessness interchangeably.
When a family member has died, each person will experience a different range of emotions and feelings tied to the loss.
Deep sadness and trouble accepting the death are all common symptoms of grief.
However, things get tricky when people suffering after the loss of a loved one’s death after a prolonged period find that their symptoms aren’t getting any better.
Some may even find that their grief is getting worse even after a substantial amount of time has passed. Under these circumstances, a mental health professional may diagnose someone with complicated grief disorder.
Complicated grief disorder
Typically, grief’s intense feelings and emotions pass or get much easier to manage after a specific time frame.
However, feelings of loss are crippling for some mourners and don’t improve no matter how much time has passed.
Persistent complex bereavement disorder
When people find that their grief is prolonged, they will usually get diagnosed with complicated grief disorder or persistent complex bereavement disorder.
Everyone experiences grief in different ways, and experts agree that people follow varying paths through the grieving process.
However, in complicated grief, the feelings are unrelenting and long-lasting, so much so that it’s almost impossible for the person to function and resume everyday life.
Symptoms of complicated grief
The tricky thing with complicated grief is that it can be challenging to diagnose, particularly at the outset.
At the beginning of a bereavement, normal grief symptoms are similar to complicated grief.
Although, one of the critical differences acknowledged by mental health professionals is that while normal grief symptoms fade after some time, complicated grief sticks around or gets worse.
Warning signs of prolonged grief
Some of the signs of complicated grief include:
- Intense or continuous longing for the deceased person
- Intense sorrow, pain, or rumination over the loss of a loved one or relative
- Trouble accepting the death
- Bitterness about the loss
- A lack of trust in others
- Focus on little else except for the deceased person
- Emotional numbness and detachment
- Feeling as though life has no meaning
- Finding it difficult to complete daily tasks, enjoy life, and think back on positive experiences with your deceased loved one
Other troubling signs that you may have complicated grief include:
- Isolating from others and withdrawing from social events and activities
- Blaming yourself for the death or thinking that you could have done something to prevent it
- Feeling as though life isn’t worth living without your loved one
- Experiencing profound depression, guilt, self-blame, and deep sadness
- Wishing you had died with your loved one
When to contact a mental health professional or doctor
Mental health experts advise that people who have problems functioning in their daily living, or those with intense grief that doesn’t improve after about a year, must contact a mental health professional or a doctor.
Research suggests that complicated grief is more common in females and tends to be more prevalent in older age.
Other factors may increase the likelihood of a person developing complicated grief disorder, such as:
- Death of a child
- Social isolation or loss of a support system or friendship
- A sudden or violent death such as murder, the suicide of a loved one, or a car accident
- Having a history of mental disorders such as separation anxiety, major depression, anxiety disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder
- Traumatic experiences as a child, such as witnessing a traumatic event, neglect, or abuse
- Financial hardships (or other life stressors)
Complications that arise from suffering from complicated grief
Complicated grief impacts people on many levels, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Without appropriate medical expertise and mental health treatment, complications may arise, such as:
- Significant sleep disturbances
- Anxiety and PTSD
- Long-term difficulties in daily living, work, and relationships
- Increased risk of physical symptoms or health issues such as high blood pressure, cancer, or heart disease
- Substance abuse, such as alcohol, nicotine, or drugs
- Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
Complicated grief causes a plethora of unpleasant symptoms for sufferers. Some people may not even be aware of the kind of emotions related to complicated grief.
For example, people with substance abuse issues may think their symptoms are related to something else. Yet, crucially, when death occurs, people are not always aware of the impact it can have.
Essentially, prevention begins with awareness.
Many people may put their symptoms of complicated grief down to a mental illness such as anxiety or depression.
However, studies show that mental disorders such as ADHD often get misdiagnosed when the person is suffering from complicated grief disorder.
Lost loved one
When the death of a loved one occurs, it can feel impossible to continue with daily life.
Our social interactions get skewed with negative thoughts and emotions that can be impossible to contain. Many experience friendship problems after the death of a loved one or issues in a romantic relationship.
On the other hand, some people may experience problems with family members, mainly when family members’ grief experiences are markedly different.
Diagnostic and statistical manual
Prolonged grief disorder (or complicated grief) has recently gotten added to the fifth edition within the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-5). A manual that organizes and defines mental disorders or clinical disorders.
The above makes getting professional help for complicated grievers easier since the symptoms and classifications can easily get identified and treated.
Fortunately, there are treatments available for prolonged grief or complicated grief. Bereavement counseling can be a valuable way to deal with complicated grief.
For those who have symptoms of PTSD, there are trauma treatments available such as eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR), that can help people manage the unpleasant symptoms of complicated grief and re-frame their experiences through more positive belief systems.
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms and would like to speak to a specialist, contact a member of our team today who can help.