Are you asking yourself “what is complicated grief?”
“Grief” is a simple word for a complex experience and in that sense all grief is complicated. However we use the term complicated in the medical sense, meaning that something is interfering with coping with a loss. You can think of losing a loved one as somewhat like a physical injury and psychological issues that interfere with grief as like an infection that complicates wound healing. This is what we mean by complicated grief.
Bereavement is a universal human experience and our minds contain mechanisms for successful coping and finding a satisfactory “new normal”. Humans are naturally resilient. When grief complications are present, this natural resilience is thwarted.
Complicated grief (CG) is the condition that occurs when the instinctive adaptive response to bereavement becomes stalled.
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Most people with CG had a rewarding relationship with their loved one.
You might think that complicated grief is more likely if there was a difficult or ambivalent relationship with the person who died. However, this is not the case. Sometimes what a person yearns for is a relationship they badly wanted but couldn’t have. However, it is a misconception that complicated grief is usually related to underlying problems in the relationship with the deceased. Most people struggling with complicated grief have had an especially strong and rewarding relationship with the person who died. This means yearning and sorrow are especially strong and acute grief is especially painful.CG is a form of grief that takes hold of a person’s mind and won’t let go.
It is natural to experience intense grief after someone close dies, but complicated grief is different. Troubling thoughts, dysfunctional behaviors or problems regulating emotions get a foothold and stall adaptation. When this happens acute grief is prolonged.
Even when a relationship is very strong, you can have troubling thoughts about the circumstances of the death or your relationship with the person you love once they are gone. In fact its very natural to think about things you wish you could have said or done differently. It’s when these troubling thoughts are frequent and persistent, when you get caught up in “if only” thinking that grief can be complicated.
Grief can also be complicated if you engage in too much avoidance of reminders of the loss. It is very natural to want to avoid reminders and avoidance can be helpful as one way of finding some relief from the pain, but when avoidance is excessive, this complicates the process of successful coping. Avoidance stops you from learning all the different things the loss means to you and it also restricts the activities you can do as you move forward in your life.
Another way grief can be complicated is if you are unable to regulate the intense emotions that accompany acute grief. You may find yourself feeling very self-critical of your emotional reactions or you may be afraid of how emotional you are feeling. Sometimes people feel that having less emotionality about the loss would be a betrayal of the person who died. When you can’t regulate emotions, the pain can be relentless.
Each year millions of bereaved people worldwide develop CG.
Almost everyone experiences grief after losing someone important. The form of grief is unique to each loss and its intensity and duration vary depending on a number of factors. Still, most people adapt to even very painful losses and find a new normal. Grief finds its rightful place in their lives. Only a fraction of bereaved people are vulnerable to CG but this still means millions of people suffer in this way.
Some people are more at risk for CG than others because of their personal or family history. Circumstances and consequences of the death can also increase the risk for CG. Each loss is unique and it is very possible to develop CG after one loss and not after another. If you have CG or you know someone who does, you can be sure they are not alone.