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Complicated Grief: When the Sadness Doesn’t Stop

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Heidi Radunovich, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida, and Suzanna Smith, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

When a loved one dies, the experience is devastating for those left behind. Intense grief and sadness are normal, particularly when a survivor was especially close to the person who passed away.

But in some cases, grief stays agonizingly strong for many months, even years, with the bereaved person virtually unable to function. Those close to him or her may wonder whether this is normal or what to do to help. In fact, sometimes grief can become a mental health concern. Mental health professionals refer to this as “complicated grief” or “prolonged grief disorder.”

People with complicated grief often find themselves unable to think about anything other than the person they have lost. They may blame themselves for the death, or feel that life has lost its meaning. Sometimes they experience continued disbelief that the death has occurred, or even hallucinate that their loved one is still with them. If six or more months have passed and the survivor continues to struggle to cope, seeming deeply distressed, he or she may be among the approximately 9% of survivors who develop complicated grief .

Complicated grief seems to be more common when the death was unexpected or violent, or was a suicide. Those with a history of depression and anxiety also appear to be more vulnerable. This form of grief can be a serious problem, affecting sufferers’ health and increasing their risk of substance abuse or, tragically, suicide.

If you suspect a family member or loved one may be suffering from complicated grief, consult a mental health professional. Specialized grief therapy and support groups have been shown to be effective in helping these survivors move forward from their loss. Grief is normal after a loved one dies, but healing is, too.

(Photo credit: La soledad es de piedra/ Sorrow by Isai Moreno. CC BY 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading

Complicated Grief–from the Mayo Clinic

The Center for Complicated Grief

Complicated Grief–from Harvard Medical School

References:

Mayo Clinic. (2009). Complicated grief. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/complicated-grief/DS01023

Wittouck, C., Autreve, S. V., Jaegere, E. D., Portzky, G., & Heeringen, K. V. (2010). The prevention and treatment of complicated grief: A meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(1), 69-78.

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2011). Complicated grief. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida.)