How Do You Know if Your Grief is Complicated?

All grief has its complications. It can be shocking, confusing, messy, disorientating, and debilitating at times. These expected grief reactions are just some amongst the many others that are unique to each person. The way you experience your grief is dependent upon so many details. For example, the kind of loss you are grieving, how the loss occurred, what was happening leading up to the loss, your cultural expectations, your gender, age, and if it was a stigmatized loss (such as suicide, drug overdose, etc.) all impact the grief experience. In some cases, others may not even recognize your loss as valid or give you the support you need to heal your grief. These are just some of the reasons why we cannot make absolute statements about what “normal” grief is and what it is not. Well, to a point.

With this said, there are those grievers, approximately 7-10% of bereaved actually, that do not adapt to their losses. As I mentioned, it is expected, and normal, to be very bereaved after a loss. These reactions are found in that time directly and shortly after a loss, the “acute phase” of grief. You may feel extreme emotions, have physical reactions, experience difficulties in problem solving and memory, want to withdraw from others, have strong feelings and thoughts about your higher power (if that is your belief system), or even not want to do anything at all, to say the least. How long does this last? I wish I had a hard and fast answer for you, but unfortunately, it’s just not that easy. 

However, if the acute phase of grief does not let up and your ability to function well does not return to a “new normal,” you may be experiencing what is called as prolonged grief, also known as complicated grief. As I mentioned above, there are a lot of factors that affect the length of this acute phase. For example, the loss of a child might have a longer acute phase while the loss of a job may not extend as long. However, along the way, there is a gradual return to those people and activities that are important and the griever finds ways to live with the loss. 

For those with prolonged grief, those shifts to a “new normal” do not happen. I have to tread lightly here. Adapting to very deep, painful, life shattering losses often takes much longer to adapt to. I have worked with those who have lost a spouse, a child, a sibling, grandparent, a marriage or partnership, and other types of very deep losses. In some cases, the acute phase of grief can last for a year or two. 

For some bereaved people, they are unable to accept the reality of the loss. They know the loss has occurred, but the full impact, the disbelief that it has happened, and acceptance of the reality of the loss never comes. The griever does not know how to cope with his or her grief in healthy ways, and as a result, their grief feels “stuck”. Fundamentally, the griever avoids the actual process of grieving (even if all he or she thinks about is who or what he or she has lost), and he or she is unable to find a way to live in this changed life. Feeling hopeless about a life lived without their loved one can often occur, and even, in some cases, the griever may feel he or she wishes to die or order to reunite with the person he or she is missing. That’s a scary situation! **

Prolonged grief may last years. It even can last a lifetime. If you think you or someone you know is suffering with prolonged grief, professional help from a grief specialist can prove to be very helpful. Finding the way to live with a painful and deep loss is possible, and having someone who can help you find that path is important.

**If you or someone you know is experiencing a loss that is bring up thoughts of self-harm or thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255, chat with a professional online, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor immediately. There is help. Please don’t wait.