Though this is purely anecdotal, I think most people who experience a significant loss go through moments of feeling like they’re losing it. After spending most of your life feeling somewhat “normal,” the terrifying and unknown territory of grief can feel very abnormal. In grief, it’s normal to feel not normal. Confusing! As one of our favorite authors, Viktor Frankl, wrote, “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
You can look at the fact that a wide range of change, distress, and emotion is “expected,” “typical,” or “normal” in life after loss in several ways. On the one hand, you may find comfort knowing that there’s a better than good chance what you are experiencing is not a sign of a more significant problem. But, on the other hand, you may find such a vast expanse of grey areas confusing. How does anyone ever know when their experience does reflect something that requires more professional support?
I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that now and again, people find themselves at an impasse in their grief. Their grief intensity remains high, they feel no improvement as the months tick by, and they aren’t sure how else to cope. Grief that becomes debilitating and all-consuming may be considered complicated grief or persistent complex bereavement disorder, which we’ve 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 or crying every day. And it’s hard to imagine a future in which things feel any 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 Center for Complicated Grief, they are conducting extensive research around complicated grief. It may be helpful to consider the signs of complicated grief outlined by Columbia University researchers:
Signs of CG:
- 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.
If you have just read over this and thought this sounds like you, you may be wondering what to do next. Please see our guide to seeking grief support. 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).
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.