What Is “complicated” Grief?
Grief is the term that designates our reaction to loss—and for any two people, that reaction will differ. The classic depiction of grief is almost synonymous with the symptoms of depression or of that of active mourning: we picture shock transforming into tears or anger, and a maybe even a measure of self-blame as you question: “What could I have done differently?”
Responding to grief in such a way isn’t overblown—it’s in fact incredibly normal. But some of us grieve differently. We turn our grief internally into our deepest selves or feel uncomfortable sharing our emotions openly—or we simply don’t emote, even in the quietest places that we reserve for our true selves.
Others of us feel conflicting emotions about loss. Maybe we feel relieved to witness an end to suffering or the burden of caretaking—and that makes us feel guilty.
And others of us yet still, experience an intractable grief that outlives the mourning period of customary sadness. In art, there’s a concept that is analogous to persistent grief that is referred to as “negative space”. Negative space denotes the background or empty space that bounds the focal point, or subject, of a painting or a photograph. For people with intractable—or “complicated” grief—all rooms that they inhabit become blurred by negative space, such that the absence of a particular person or circumstance becomes the focus… and they struggle—not because of a conscious lack of effort—to shake their feelings of profound and pervasive emptiness.
Is Death The Only Event That Qualifies As A “Grieve-Able” Loss?
No. And, the answer may be broader than you’d initially imagine. Grieve-able losses may include:
- The Death of a Loved One – the loss of a parent, spouse, child, relative, or friend; even the death of someone whom you knew only peripherally can unsettle you to your core–especially when the person passes suddenly, before their time, or you admired many of their best qualities
- The Death of a Pet – animals become our loved ones, and we cherish their moody quirks and unconditional love… even when our pets are absolutely rotten and shred and scatter trash all over the kitchen floor, we’d take them back at their worst to guarantee their presence in our lives again
- Loss of a Relationship – we grieve the loss of our friendships, our breakups and divorces—there’s definitely a reason that it’s called heartache!—or even a lover’s act of infidelity, which because laced with an added layer of emotional betrayal, makes coping uniquely difficult
- Miscarriage & Birth – the connection that forms between a pregnant mother, expecting partner, and unborn child is incredibly intimate and when circumstance severs that bond prematurely, it can be devastating—for both parents.
- Loss of a Job – losing a job can make you feel inadequate, or even remorseful if you feel as though you did something… not quite right… to warrant your employer’s decision. With the passage of time, these emotions of worthlessness and self-blame can transmute into “complicated” grief
- Loss of a Dream – From “Death of a Salesman” to “A Raisin in the Sun”, there’s a reason why so many great works of literature detail the death of a dream; when you lose that thing that you’ve worked so hard for or have always dreamed about achieving, it can be difficult to understand your place in life, or where to head next
- Loss of Health or Safety: People with chronic illnesses, sudden paralysis, or traumatic brain injury grieve the loss of all that they could do prior to their injury or illness. Similarly, people who have lived through a profound trauma mourn the loss of what their life was like before the event, when anxiety about personal safety was less pressing and intrusive
- Moving: Moving is a unique category of loss that combines many of the aforementioned topics, from loss of relationships (through physical distance) to loss of a job (having to start your career over somewhere new), to loss of contact with the everyday places that you came to love… even if you didn’t notice it at the time! It’s as they say: Absence [can, and may times, it does] make the heart grow fonder.
What Are The Signs & Symptoms Of Grief & Loss?
The physical and psychological indicators of grief will vary from person to person, but may include:
- Shock, disbelief, or numbness: feeling emotionally detached as you adapt to the knowledge that a loved one has passed or that your circumstances have been altered
- Sadness: the predominant emotion associated with grief, and when not properly addressed, can evolve into a lengthier bout of depression
- Anger, Guilt, or Blame: feeling angry or holding yourself, the deceased, or the people who were involved in your changing circumstance responsible for the loss; or finding yourself perpetually irritable and snapping at random people (grocery store clerks, librarians, etc.) with little provocation
- Yearning: reminiscing and ruminating about the time before your love one passed or the event of loss happened
- Futility: struggling to understand the purpose of the tragedy or of life in general
- Relief: feeling relieved after the inevitable occurs and you’re no longer hanging in the balance… waiting for the other shoe to drop
- Physical symptoms: including gastrointestinal upset, weight loss or weight gain, sleep disturbances (including excessive fatigue or difficulty falling and staying asleep)
- Behavioral symptoms: including absentminded behavior, avoiding reminders of the loss, social withdrawal, or engaging in risky behaviors (such as substance use or sexual promiscuity) to dull unpleasant sensations
How Can Counseling & Therapy For Grief & Loss Help Me?
Counseling & Therapy for grief management can help improve recovery outcomes for all stages of loss—from initial moments of shock, anger, and sadness to more complicated cases of bereavement that seem to linger endlessly. Your therapist will help you to:
- Identify and confront complicated emotions or trauma: If you’re a silent griever, you may not know how you feel; or regardless of your grieving style, you may have complicated emotions regarding your loss (for example, you may feel relieved (and simultaneously guilty) when a family member with a drug addiction overdoses because you no longer have to be eaten alive with worry about their well-being and safety); or perhaps the loss itself was tinged with trauma (maybe you were sexually assaulted or lost a friend in a car accident in which you were both involved). Your therapist will help you to confront these emotions as you work together to find avenues for healing and personal growth.
- Improve your self-care: Grief has a tendency to make people in its clutches forget to take care of themselves. As difficult as it is, your therapist will help you to establish a routine that’s a blend of maintaining your responsibilities, self-relaxation, and fun. Although it may feel like going through the motions at first, in time, taking care of yourself will become second nature
- Connect to group or family therapy services that are appropriate for your situation, (for example: family counseling to process grief from the loss of a loved one or group therapy as a supplement treatment for survivors of trauma)
- Recruit your spiritual beliefs (as applicable) to assist with coping: When a senseless tragedy occurs, some people derive comfort in placing their problems into the guiding hands of a higher power; for the non-religious, alternative therapy techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, or psychotherapeutic yoga can help you achieve a similar self-soothing effect