When to Seek Help for Complicated Grief

Grief is a normal human process, and while it can seem as if it will never get better, you should begin to see improvements in the months after losing a loved one. If you still struggle to accept the loss, still have intense painful feelings, and are having a hard time functioning up to a year after you lose someone you love, you may have complicated grief and you need to seek out support from a mental health professional.

While complicated grief is not the normal pathway for processing the death of a loved one, it is important to know that you are not alone if you are struggling with it. Some studies estimate that as many as 10 to 20 percent of people dealing with grief will develop this more severe condition.

Persistent, severe grief that does not get better, or that even gets worse with time, is serious and needs to be treated with the support of mental health professionals. Learn the differences between typical and complicated grief so you can get help for yourself or someone you care about who is going through this.

What Is Complicated Grief Disorder?

Complicated grief, which is also called persistent complex bereavement disorder, occurs when normal, expected grief over the loss of a loved one becomes severe and lasts much longer than it should. Grieving is a normal process and a healthy one too, but when you can’t function in your life and the sad and painful emotions persist for months or even years it is no longer normal. You may be struggling with complicated grief, which is treatable.

Are You at Risk for Complicated Grief?

Some people may be more likely than others to experience typical grief transforming into a more persistent condition. Recognized risk factors for complicated grief include:

  • Grieving the loss of a child or someone who died suddenly in a violent and unexpected way
  • Having a very close relationship with the person you lost
  • Not having a good support system of friends or family to help you through your grief, or being or feeling socially isolated
  • Having a history of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or separation anxiety
  • Traumatic experiences during childhood
  • Having major sources of stress in your life at the time of the loss, such as a chronic illness or financial issues

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Distinguishing between Normal and Complicated Grief

Especially when you are in the middle of experiencing grief, trying to figure out if your experience is healthy and typical or if it is caused by a disorder can be challenging. If you have a friend or family member going through this, it may be easier for you to see the difference and to be able to reach out to that person and suggest they may need more professional support.

One of the biggest signs of complicated grief is the inability to move on in a reasonable amount of time. Everyone goes through grief a little differently, but generally people tend to progress through acceptance, feeling loss, adjusting to a life without a loved one, and developing new relationships in a year or less. If you cannot get past these stages a year after a loss, or if normal signs of grief fail to improve or even get worse within the first few months, you may be experiencing complicated grief. Some important signs of complicated grief include:

  • Intense emotional pain and a feeling of being unable to get over the loss
  • Difficulty focusing on anything other than your loss
  • Either focusing too much on reminders of your lost loved one or going to extremes to avoid those reminders
  • Being unable to accept that someone has died
  • Lacking purpose or meaning in life
  • Inability to do normal activities or get through daily routines
  • Social isolation and withdrawal
  • Wishing you had died along with your loved one, thoughts of suicide
  • Feeling guilty about the death and as if you could have done something to prevent it

When and How to Get Help

If these signs of complicated grief sound like your experience, it is time to reach out and ask for help. If you are unsure if your grief has crossed the line from normal to complicated, it’s best to seek a professional opinion. Only a healthcare provider can determine if you are struggling with complicated grief, major depression, or another issue.

You can turn to a trusted friend or family member first, if you are unsure what to do next. But, it is important that you work with a professional. Treatment is necessary to help you feel better and resolve your feelings about the loss. Therapy and medication if appropriate can make a big difference and let you move on with your life.