Supporting a Partner Through Complicated Grief and Knowing When to Get Help

It’s painful to watch your partner’s pain in grief and to recognize that they have complicated grief disorder. But this awareness is an important first step toward recovery when you can see the value of reaching out for help in a professional treatment setting.

Hudson was 6 when his body stopped responding to the chemotherapy and let go. Kat and Jerry both lost a son. They lost the present, they lost the future, and on some days it even felt as if they’d lost the past. As each month went by without Hudson, Jerry felt the weight of his grief lift just a bit at a time. But Kat remained in the depths of her mourning and even seemed to sink deeper at times. She held on to the paralyzing combination of denial and confused hope and anger, and Jerry was terribly afraid both of crossing the line to try to help her come back to the surface and of not crossing that volatile line.

It wasn’t just Hudson’s life that had ended that day. Jerry and Kat needed help. Nearly a year had passed and she was still spending every day struggling through the normal events of life because Hudson was cut off from experiencing those events—because she could no longer share those moments with him—because it all happened too soon and shouldn’t have been that way. Jerry wasn’t sure how to help her, or if he even could.

Grief is an important part of the human transition after losing a loved one. Whether the deceased person lived a long, full life and their death was expected or they passed away too young and their death was sudden, those who outlive them must process their loss and rediscover how to live without that person in their lives. Time is often enough to gradually heal and complete the process of grief, but not always. While it’s difficult and subjective to draw a line between normal and beyond normal, there is a recognized difference between acute grief and that which is chronic and intense. When one’s grief is severe and continues for many months or even years following a loss, their perspective, their experiences, and their participation in life can be significantly altered. Supporting a partner with complicated grief can be distressing territory, but with the right outside help, your partner can move forward in their grief and come out the other side into the life and the future before them.

How Do You Know If Your Partner Has Complicated Grief Disorder?

You may know your partner better than anyone else and, as such, are in a good position to observe changes in their moods, their behaviors, and their ability to engage with life. Acute grief is natural and meaningful after losing someone important in our lives. But when the grief seems to take over in the longer term and your partner seems to be more involved in their relationship with complicated grief than their relationship with you, it’s time to look at the experience differently and consider finding a way through.

Beyond sadness, longing, and painful remembering that comes with bereavement, complicated grief brings symptoms that are more intense and that last longer:

  • Because the sadness is prolonged, it becomes incredibly deep and oppressive.
  • Missing someone lost can turn into an everyday obsession.
  • Depressive feelings include pervasive pessimism and despair even in unrelated areas of life.
  • Irritability and unpredictability are common.
  • Communication can be difficult when it becomes harder and harder to relate to where they are mentally and emotionally, or they may put up walls with denial or defensiveness.
  • Insomnia can set in or abnormal sleeping hours.
  • Isolation follows persistent withdrawal from activities and relationships.
  • Distraction can interfere with normal functioning at work, in relationships, and even in caring for oneself.
  • Self-destructive and risky behaviors may even develop.
  • Suicide attempts and talk of suicide are also possible.
  • Other mental health conditions can get worse with complicated grief disorder, or new disorders such as addiction may develop.

While there are similarities and also co-occurring instances, it’s important to separate the incidence of complicated grief from depression. The experience of grief is specifically different from depression as the sufferer pines for their lost loved one. Therapeutic approaches may overlap and be similarly effective, but antidepressants will not relieve the specific experience of grief when someone is still actively attached to the person they’ve lost. Antidepressant and antianxiety medications may help to relieve symptoms but should still be administered within the context of more comprehensive mental health treatment.

Likewise, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD (C-PTSD) may appear similar, and someone may experience co-occurring PTSD or C-PTSD and complicated grief following a traumatic loss, but the conditions are distinct and serious in their own ways. It’s more likely that someone with PTSD or C-PTSD is desperate to avoid their traumatic memories, whereas, someone with complicated grief is more likely to experience pervasive attachment. Although, experiences vary and some people with complicated grief do demonstrate avoidance. Again, complicated bereavement is characterized specifically by someone’s continuing relationship with the loved one lost.

Someone who suffers from complicated grief is trapped and needs help. The stagnation of their feelings and their life can lead to further deterioration of their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Within the moment it feels overwhelmingly heavy and desolate, but the truth is that hope and healing are just around the corner.

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How Do You Know When It's Time to Get Help?

When life is seriously altered by your partner’s grief, it’s time to reach out for help. It’s not a reflection on you and your ability to support them through their suffering; it is a reflection on how serious complicated grief disorder really is. You can help support them through complicated grief treatment designed to help them process the loss progressively, reconnect with the person they were before their loss, and build a real future from where they are now.

Complicated grief treatment is a personalized form of psychotherapy that helps to balance out the past, present, and future for a client experiencing the convolution of intense bereavement. For now, accepting the scope of their loss, loosening their grip on the loved one gone, and being willing to look forward to a life without them may seem impossible for your partner. But with guidance from a confident and compassionate therapist, they can take the small steps necessary to move with and through their pain.

In the context of a residential treatment center, your partner can take a break from the responsibilities at home or at work and have the chance to prioritize healing. They can feel a sense of belonging by being among others who are attempting to reconnect with their strength and hope after difficult life events. And, through family therapy, you can discover productive ways to lean on each other and work together as a family while also taking compassionate care of yourselves. Committing to treatment is about making space for the grief to take place, but it’s also about making space for a brighter future.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as co-occurring substance use disorders. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles programs and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting wellness.