What is Complicated Grief?

By Joanne Wilsher-Mills

Grief can be painful, overwhelming and unpredictable, whatever the circumstances.  It’s there whether we like it or not and the journey of grief will take its own course, with its own timeframe, whether we like it or not.  Grief is also a fundamental part of what it means to be a human being, as it is impossible to go through life without experiencing loss of some kind. Part of the experience of love and human connection, is to feel pain when that connection is broken.  Fortunately, the general understanding of grief seems to have shifted away from the idea that it’s something people eventually ‘get over’, to a more realistic and empathetic understanding, that it is more about something that people learn to live with and build their new life around.

As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross writes in her book ‘On Grief and Grieving’:

“The reality is that you will grieve forever.  You will not “get over” the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it.  You will heal, and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered.  You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”

As with the processing of any painful experience, this will be unique to each individual, depending on their personality and resilience, their life experience and what support is available to them.  But there are times when the process of grieving doesn’t seem to change, or its level of intensity is still the same after several years and someone appears to be ‘stuck’ in their grief and unable to process it in the normal way.  This may be what is known as ‘Complicated Grief’, when the acute experience of grief has not changed but has become chronic and the person is still constantly yearning for the deceased or feels guilty about moving on. Or conversely, they may experience a sense of numbness and detachment about the loss which may also start to impact on other areas of their life and they may feel unable to engage in their life in the same way as before.

What causes Complicated Grief?

Complicated grief can be caused by a variety of factors, and it is very difficult to know where to draw the line between ‘normal grief’ and complicated grief, but these following factors can be significant:

Relationship factors

The nature of the relationship someone had with the person they have lost will have a huge impact on their grief.  Often the assumption is that the person grieving will have feelings of sadness about the person they have lost.  But what if their feelings around that person are ambivalent and they had many unresolved issues with that person or they were someone who had a very negative impact on them?  Or they may have been someone they hadn’t been in contact with for a long time.  This can make the grieving process very difficult and confusing. 

Circumstantial factors

The circumstances around the person’s death, particularly if it was sudden and traumatic, such as a road traffic accident or a death caused by suicide, can also be a contributing factor.  Also, was someone able to say goodbye in the way they had hoped or attend the person’s funeral, which are all important factors in the grieving process.

Social factors

The person’s current circumstances will also have a huge impact; are they currently living with financial difficulty and lack of resources or do they have little support around them, in which case their focus will be on surviving, which makes grieving or processing any kind of trauma very difficult and often their grief gets ‘put on hold’, whether consciously or unconsciously. 

Personality factors

This plays a huge part in how someone experiences their grief.  How resilient are they? What has their experience of managing and processing difficult and overwhelming emotions been like for them in the past.  Were they taught how to do this in a healthy way, or were they taught to suppress their feelings and feel ashamed of them, particularly if they were viewed as ‘negative’ feelings.

Multiple losses

If someone has experienced more than one loss in a short space of time, this can make the grieving process much more difficult because it can be hard to get a grasp of how to grieve for each individual person, and the grieving process might be delayed because it feels too overwhelming or too confusing.

For anyone to be able to grieve fully, they need to know their basic survival needs are going to be met and that they have the right support around them, before they can feel safe enough to open the flood gates of all these painful and unpredictable feelings. Sadly, many people find themselves in the situation where opening those floodgates just feels too frightening or too alien for them and so often I hear clients say that if they get in touch with those feelings they fear they will never stop. Which is why having a safe place to express those feelings can be so helpful.

How to cope with Complicated Grief

  • Being able to identify and recognise it is the first step.  Also, being able to identify if any of the above factors were present at the time of the loss.
  • Be patient with yourself or your loved one who may be experiencing it and avoid comparing your experience to other people’s.  Remember everyone’s experience of grief is unique to them.
  • Find a support network, either with people who are going through similar experiences or people who are understanding and not judgemental.
  • Seek professional support – having the time and space to explore these issues in a safe way with someone who has a good understanding of grief and loss can often be the best way forward when dealing with complicated grief.

I specialise in working with grief and loss and can offer support for anyone who is experiencing complicated grief.  If you feel you would like support at this time, please contact me via my email jo@jwmcounselling.co.ukor you can visit my website at jwmcounselling.co.uk 


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