Though I have done no official research, I feel fairly sure most people who experience a significant loss go through moments of believing they have totally lost their minds. After spending most of your life feeling relatively “normal”, it can be slightly terrifying to one day spiral into the unknown territory of grief.
We have spent plenty of time assuring the thousands of people out there who are feeling crazy after a loss that it is usually normal-grief-crazy, even when it doesn’t feel like it. We have a whole post on how grief makes you feel crazy!
But every now and again, the normal-grief-crazy becomes more than that. It takes on a life of its own and it becomes something that requires more support than can be found from friends and family, books, church, websites, journals, or time.
Grief that becomes debilitating and all-consuming may be considered complicated grief. Of course, all grief is complicated, but this is the label that has been given to grief associated with the responses described in the section below.
What is Complicated Grief?
Hypothetical Case Study: You feel like total crap. Life feels impossibly overwhelming. You are irrationally angry. You are crying every day. You can’t imagine it will get better.
Is this normal grief or complicated grief? Sometimes it feels like a coin toss, even to us professionals. Because the reality is that in the early days after a loss, it is normal to have the symptoms described above. So the question becomes, how can you figure out if you (or your friend or family member) may be in need of professional grief support?
My first thought about this: we could all use a little bit of therapy! There really isn’t a threshold one has to hit in order for therapy to be beneficial. So if you are thinking about grief counseling, why not give it a go? It is an opportunity to spend time on yourself, learn some things about yourself, and get out of the house. What do you have to lose?
That said, if it has been more than a few months and your symptoms seem the same or more severe than immediately following the loss, this could be a reason to consider professional help. At the Columbia University School of Social Work, they are conducting extensive research around complicated grief. It may be helpful to consider the signs of complicated grief outlined by Columbia University researchers:
- Strong feelings of yearning or longing for the person who died
- Feeling intensely lonely, even when other people are around
- Strong feelings of anger or bitterness related to the death
- Feeling like life is empty or meaningless without the person who died
- Thinking so much about the person who died that it interferes with doing things or with relationships with other people
- Strong feelings of disbelief about the death or finding it very difficult to accept the death
- Feeling shocked, stunned, dazed or emotionally numb
- Finding it hard to care about or to trust other people
- A feeling of constant fear and anxiety.
- Feeling very emotionally or physically activated when confronted with reminders of the loss
- Avoiding people, places, or things that are reminders of the loss
- Strong urges to see, touch, hear or smell things to feel close to the person who died
They suggest that three or more of these symptoms persisting beyond 6 months may be an indicator of complicated grief and a reason to consider professional support. There are certain factors that could put you at greater risk of having complicated grief. Having experienced one of these risk factors by no means is an indicator that you will experience complicated grief. It just means you are a little more likely.
Some of these factors include things like experiencing an unexpected or violent loss, a loved one dying by suicide, a lack of support system, or past traumatic losses. To learn more about Columbia University’s research, visit https://www.complicatedgrief.org/
If you have just read over this and thought, “oh crap, this sounds like me (or a friend or family member)” you may be asking what to do next. Please see our guide to seeking grief support here. It is a lot easier than you may think to get help. Really.
If you want to read a little more on this subject, check out the following articles:
- What is “Normal” in Grief?
- When Grief Goes From Just Plain Miserable to Problematic
- Grief and Psychological Disorder: Understanding the Diathesis-Stress Model
For some, grief can lead to thoughts of suicide. If you are thinking of hurting yourself please seek immediate treatment. You can call 911, go to your local emergency room, or call a local crisis response team. In the US you can seek 24/7 support through National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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