September 20, 2017

Dealing with loss is always a difficult experience. However, 10-20% of bereaved persons experience a more complex kind of grief that impairs regular functioning for a prolonged period of time. This is called complicated grief.

Do you know someone who has recently dealt with a painful loss? Learn more about complicated grief: what it is, who it affects, and how to cope with it.

Complicated Grief: What It Is & How to Cope With It

What is the difference between simple grief and complicated grief?

When faced with a difficult loss, everyone handles the grieving stage slightly different. During this time, people may cry, eat more or less, and long for their lost loved one and wonder how life will continue without him/her. They may even decide to seek help through counseling or therapy; however, these feelings of mourning will eventually resolve themselves with time – with or without added professional help. This type of mourning is called simple grief.

Complicated grief, on the other hand, is when these acute symptoms of grieving become chronic.

The symptoms of complicated grief are not largely different than those of simple grief. The key difference is that, unlike with simple grief, these feelings of mourning will not go away on their own; rather, they will worsen with time and linger for more than just a few months.

Who is affected by complicated grief?

Approximately 10-20% of bereaved persons experience complicated grief. Usually, complicated grief affects those with a history of alcohol or drug addiction, depression, anxiety, or emotionally dependent relationships.

What is complicated grief like?

Research studies explain that complicated grievers’ brains process grief differently than those of simple grievers.

With complicated grief, a person is completely preoccupied with memories of the deceased, making it difficult for them to think about past and future events that don’t included their loved one. For example, a person experiencing complicated grief will only think of past events that include their lost loved one, and they will be unable to think of future events without imagining what it would be like if their loved one could be there.

A complicated griever will constantly spend time looking at pictures of the deceased and talking about him/her at any given opportunity. This obsessive behavior is not a healthy means of mourning. Essentially, a person dealing with complicated grief will not leave any room in their life for anything other than memories of their lost loved one. They are, in a way, addicted to the memories.

In fact, addiction plays a key role in understanding complicated grief.

When assessing the neurological activity of complicated grievers, researchers found that their obsessive preoccupation with the deceased brings them as much pleasure as it does pain.

With both simple and complicated grief, the center of the brain responsible for memories and emotions (the limbic system) is activated. However, with complicated grief, the center of the brain responsible for pleasure, rewards, and addiction (the nucleus accumbens) is also activated. Thus, because complicated grievers get pleasure from remembering their loved one, they are unable to end the mourning period and successfully move on.

Symptoms of complicated grief

The first step to coping with complicated grief is to recognize it. Below are some common symptoms of complicated grief:

  • Extreme focus on the loss and reminders of the loved one
  • Intense longing or pining for the deceased
  • Problems accepting the death
  • Numbness or detachment
  • Inability to enjoy life
  • Depression or deep sadness
  • Difficulty carrying out normal routines
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose
  • Irritability or agitation
  • Lack of trust in others

How to cope with complicated grief

Coping with any kind of grief after the loss of a loved one is a difficult process; this difficulty is compounded when it comes to complicated grief.

At Community VNA, we offer a variety of services to help people experiencing complicated grief cope with the loss of their loved one. This includes:

  • Bereavement and grief services
  • Adult grief programs
  • Monthly support group
  • Six-week grief series
  • Kids’ club
  • Parkinson’s disease support
  • Caregiver support.

And, to help counselors and others working with bereaved persons to understand, assess, and assist individuals who may be experiencing complicated grief, Community VNA is holding a special event Monday, September 25th 2017, from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Community VNA’s Main Office in Attleboro: Living with Grief: When Grief is Complicated.

At the event, there will be a film-screening, followed by a discussion about complicated grief.

Register for the event now, or contact for more information.

Explore Community VNA’s Caregiver and Grief Support services.

Visit Community VNA to learn more.