How To Process Complicated Grief In Healthy Ways

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers

Losing a loved one or dealing with a major life change can be distressing. It’s a common experience that everyone faces. Most people who experience a significant loss or change have a period of sorrow, numbness, or even anger or guilt. With time, those feelings ease, and moving forward with life becomes possible.

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What happens when you experience a loss that seems unbearable? What about when that overwhelming feeling in the pit of your stomach makes you think things will never be the same? If you are familiar with these feelings, you’re not alone. While grief is a normal emotion associated with loss, complicated grief is just that…. complicated.

Complicated grief is the term used to describe unresolved, chronic grief, or grief that is delayed. It has been described as an ongoing, heightened state of mourning. The symptoms of “normal” grief and complicated grief are similar in the beginning. However, while normal grief symptoms begin to ease and slowly subside, the symptoms of complicated grief linger and get worse.

The Stages Of Grief

While everyone experiences grief differently, there are stages of the grief process that most people experience. Just as people are different, the order that one experiences the stages of grief and whether a stage is skipped or repeated is unique to the bereaved person.

The initial stage of grief is a stage of denial and shock. During this stage, many people refer to it as a feeling of being “emotionally paralyzed.” It’s knowing that something happened but feeling as though it is a bad dream.

After the initial shock of grief, guilt, pain, anger, and bargaining often occur. Some people blame themselves for the loss. Even when the loss was related to a chronic illness that resulted in death, survivors often experience “survivor’s guilt.” For some feelings of anger and frustration become so overwhelming that it affects their personal and professional relationships.

Depression, loneliness, and reflection is the stage of grief when reality seems to set in. This is when extreme emotions begin to be felt. Many people withdraw from others and say that they prefer to deal with grief alone.

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At some point, the feelings of pain, guilt, and anger begin to lift. At this point, referred to as the upward turn, the bereaved person begins to feel an improvement in overall well-being. For people with complicated grief, this stage is often delayed by at least a year due to unresolved feelings.

In cases of uncomplicated grief, the bereaved person will begin a phase of working through emotions and accepting a loss. At this point, the person will begin to make plans and find some sense of normal in moving forward with life. For people who are experiencing complicated grief, however, this part of the grieving process can take years, especially if he/she does not seek help.

Identifying Signs And Symptoms Of Complicated Grief

As someone else experiences grief and recovers, the person with complicated grief will continue to have symptoms. Those symptoms can become overwhelming and can begin to influence everyday life. Some common symptoms of complicated grief include:

  • Feelings of numbness and detachment
  • Inability to think about the loss with any positive memories
  • Intense or persistent longing for the deceased person
  • Intense sorrow or pain because of the loss of your loved one
  • An inability to focus on anything but the loved one’s death
  • Extreme focus on things that remind one of the lost loved ones

Additional signs that you are experiencing complicated grief include feeling the need to isolate from others, having trouble carrying out normal routines, experiencing depression or self-blame, or wishing you had died with your loved one.

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After a loss, it can be difficult to accept what has happened. Feelings of disbelief may be present. If someone you love has died, you may expect him/her to call or come by, even though you know he/she is gone. This period of shock and disbelief is normal, especially during complicated grief. Even if no one was at fault for the loss you are experiencing, you may begin having feelings of anger or resentment. Again, this is a normal feeling.

Additionally, a significant loss can result in increased worry or fear about the future. You may feel insecure or helpless. Some people experience anxiety and/or panic attacks.

Complicated grief can have physical symptoms in addition to emotional symptoms. Weight loss or gain, extreme fatigue, nausea and vomiting, insomnia, and aches and pains for no apparent reason often occur.

Processing Complicated Grief

While there is no right or wrong way to grief, there are healthy ways to deal with complicated grief.

Overcoming complicated grief is a journey. It is a journey that must be intentional. Learning to cope with complicated grief healthily will help decrease the chances of grief having a strong or long-lived effect on other aspects of your life. Some healthy ways to help process complicated grief include:

  • Acknowledge That You Are In Pain. No one expects you to experience a loss and not feel pain. It’s okay to hurt. It’s okay to cry. It’s even okay to be angry. Acknowledging your feelings is the first step in taking control and healing.
  • Understand That Your Grieving Process Is Your Grieving Process. No two people grieve the same. You don’t have to try to fit your grief and emotions into a cookie-cutter mold. Take your time, as much time as you need.
  • Recognize The Difference Between Depression And Grief. Depression is a common medical illness that negatively affects how a person feels, thinks, and acts. It may be present before a loss that causes grief or is become apparent after a loss. Further, depression may worsen after a loss. Grief, on the other hand, is a deep sorrow that is brought about by significant loss or change, especially that sorrow that is felt after someone’s death.
  • Take Care Of Yourself Physically To Promote Emotional Health. Make sure you schedule enough time to rest each night. Lack of sleep can cause overstimulation in the brain, which leads to increased anxiety that can trigger worsening grief and depression. Take a walk or go for a bicycle ride. Eat nutritious meals so that your body can be healthy from the inside out.
  • Journal About Positive Memories. Taking the time to write down positive memories will give you a chance to redirect your thoughts from the negative, sad emotions and will help you to recall the joy that you shared with your lost loved one.

Seek Support For Complicated Grief

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The pain that is felt because of complicated grief can make you feel the need to withdraw from friends or loved ones. However, it is especially important during this time to communicate with others. You will likely find that there is comfort from simply spending time with others who care for you.

Grief can be a confusing emotion for some people. If your closest friends or loved ones have not experienced a similar loss, they may feel unsure about what to say to comfort you. Remember, even if their words don’t come out just right, having a friend who cares can help you through this trying time.

Even when you have friends or loved ones around you, when you experience grief, especially complicated grief, it can feel very lonely. Sharing your experience with others who have experienced loss can help you find effective ways of communicating your thoughts and feelings. A bereavement support group is a great place to fellowship with people who understand what you are going through. Local hospitals, churches (if you are religious), and counseling centers often have bulletins with support group dates and times listed.

When You Need Help Dealing With Complicated Grief

Complicated grief can cause feelings of being overwhelmed and afraid. If you have tried to process your grief yet continue to feel like you are not moving toward healing, seeking the advice of your doctor or a mental health professional can be helpful. While support groups and close social networks are important, there are times when additional resources are necessary.

Local mental wellness clinics, counseling centers, and private mental health practices can offer and provide grief counseling to help you learn ways to manage and work through the complicated grief you are experiencing. Many of these places will see you without a referral from a primary care provider. However, if you choose to a mental health professional, at least notifying your doctor is a good idea. This way, if you need any medication to help you cope with the grief process, the healthcare providers can collaborate with you and develop a plan that is specific to your needs.

Further, if you are interested in counseling options but prefer not to go into a setting such as an office or healthcare facility, there are online resources available that could be beneficial for you. Online counseling services, such as the services provided by BetterHelp, are tailored for you. Their team is comprised of licensed, trained, experienced, and accredited psychologists, clinical social workers, and board licensed professional counselors. You can have access to licensed, professional counseling from the comfort and safety of your own home, to help you begin the road to recovery from complicated grief.


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