‘Complicated Grief’ Disrupts Daily Functioning in 10% of Grievers—Here’s What To Know About It

Photo: Getty Images/Kilito Chan
The experience of navigating grief can feel erratic, exhausting, and hardly ever linear. But with complicated grief, which occurs in about 10 percent of grieving people, the pain can impair basic daily functioning. For example, one recent study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, investigated how grief impacted the sleep of middle-aged and elderly adults. Those enduring complicated grief had a shorter sleep time, low sleep efficiency, and compromised sleep quality.

But what makes complicated grief different from what's considered non-complicated grief? While everyone's journey with loss is different, non-complicated or "normal" grief might be categorized as crying, apathy, a lack of energy, trouble concentrating, and experiencing complex emotions including guilt, anger, and deep sadness for a period of time. According to grief counselor Diane P. Brennan, LMHC, signs of complicated grief point to grief becoming overwhelming, long-term, and paralyzing.

"Complicated grief is when someone experiences a grief process where the intensity and level of distress is unrelenting over time." —Diane P. Brennan, LMHC

"There are all sorts of things that can happen to complicate our lives after a loss. For example, disagreement and conflict with family members, difficulty with funeral arrangements, financial issues, and so on," Brennan says. "When we are talking about complicated grief, we are referring to the psychological response that we have following a loss—our thoughts, feelings and behaviors related to the loss. Complicated grief is when someone experiences a grief process where the intensity and level of distress is unrelenting over time."

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Think you or someone you care about may be struggling with complicated grief? Below, Brennan shares several signs to look for, and resources that might ease some pain.

5 signs of complicated grief to look for, according to a grief counselor

1. All-consuming grief that doesn't dissipate after a certain time

While you may never truly get over the loss of a loved, you can still accept it. That said, Brennan says to pay attention to overwhelming grief that persists for more than six months following a loss. The longer grief consumes a person's life without that person striving to build a new normal, the more cause for concern there may be about the presence of complicated grief.

2. A complete detachment from activities

A sign of complicated grief is an inability to fully engage in social, occupational, and family functioning.

3. Emotionally clinging to the person you lost

Brennan says to look for an intense yearning and desire to be connected with the person who died. Again, this is different than someone wearing their mother's pearls when her birthday comes around. This is about wearing her clothing daily, living in her sweaters as if it'll bring her back. It's less about honoring someone's memory and more about a fear of losing contact with them.

4. Avoiding reminders of the person lost

On the flip side, someone enduring complicated grief might completely avoid feeling connected to the person they lost. To use another example, if you and your mother used to have pizza together every Friday, and a year after her death, you haven't eaten a single slice, it's a potential sign of complicated grief.

5. Painful memories about person you lost, or their death itself

Brennan says if you're still haunted by certain painful, intrusive thoughts about who you lost or the death itself, that's a sign that you may be enduring complicated grief.

How to seek help when dealing with complicated grief

If you recognize signs of complicated grief consuming your thoughts or the thoughts of a loved one, consider seeking help from a mental-health professional. "Nobody should have to endure intense emotional pain and suffering following a loss," Brennan says. "There are professionals who specialize in loss and grief. They can provide evidence-based treatments, which can ease someones pain and help the person find ways to coexist with their loss."

But easier said than done, considering therapy isn't necessarily easy to access. So if you or someone you love is struggling with complicated grief right now, here are some resources that can aid with healing.

1. Open Path Collective

Open Path Collective offers therapy sessions in the $30 to $60 range. Using the site's filters, you can search for available mental-health professionals, navigating based on identity, age range, language speciality, and more—including a provider who is focused on grief and loss as a specialty.

2. Option B

Option B is an organization that provides tools for helping those struggling with grief to build resilience. They also foster healing through peer connection, either in their Facebook group boasting more than 27,000 members, or by joining a smaller gathering of 12 to 15 folks, wherein you're matched with a group that meets regularly.

3. Modern Loss

Modern Loss is a friendly and even occasionally funny (peep its Instagram account) space to converse about grief. It provides everything from how-tos on taking care of the post-death tasks to virtual grief support sessions and personal essays addressing all kinds of loss.

4. Dead Parent Club

There are a number of communities that revolve around the loss of a parent, but if you're looking for a meaningful podcast to subscribe to, we recommend Dead Parent Club. Each episode addresses nuanced perspectives on dealing with losing a parent, with lots of laughs and tears along the way.

5. What's Your Grief

What's Your Grief has a very education-based approach to healing grief, with courses, workshops, and a robust, well-organized library of resources. There's also a very heartwarming Share Your Grief section that allows catharsis through creative expression. This includes exercises like "grief in six words" or sharing a grief recipe, which is a meal that connects you to your lost loved one.

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