The departure of a loved one is a life-changing experience. Death has the potential to destabilize our lives and shake our belief systems. Pining the death of a family member or friend is a healthy process that we should all go through.
But what happens when we can’t seem to move past the death of one of us? When we feel stuck and cannot imagine a life without the deceased?
When our lives are preoccupied with grieving the lost loved one, they leave little room for anything else. Such a situation is known as complicated grief and calls for the help of a mental health professional.
Complicated Grief is also known as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder. Clinical Psychologists have explained that people who experience complicated grief have problems recalling past events which did not involve the deceased and cannot think of a future without them. It is like any activity that did not include the departed loved one is erased from their memory.
Signs of Complicated Grief
In the first few months after the loss of a loved one, signs of complicated grief are similar to those of normal grief. At what point then does grieving gain a foothold and become an incapacitating mental health concern?
When the signs occur daily, causing extreme agony and functional impairment. If the symptoms remain intense, frequent and disabling for more than six months, then they should be a cause for alarm.
Complicated grief presents the following characteristics.
Seek the services of a professional when a griever continues to feel undervalued, in perpetual turmoil and has a dull outlook for the future. Depressed grievers lose a sense of self and self-worth.
For a chronic griever, the future holds no possibility of joy or satisfaction without the deceased.
Isolation or lack of interest in activities or people that the griever once enjoyed can point to depression. Deep levels of sadness or an inability to be happy, problems carrying out routine activities, hopelessness, emotional numbness, irritability or agitation are all signs that the griever is dealing with more than they can handle.
- Holding On to Items That Belonged to a Deceased Loved One
An extreme focus on the reminders of the loved one should raise a red flag in as far as normal healthy grieving is concerned.
A particular lady who lost her husband through a motorcycle accident wanted to preserve his memory by using his helmet as a flower vase for her bedroom. Another would regularly clean and brush her late son’s shoes to keep his memories alive.
This holding on to things that belonged to the deceased can be a hindrance to healing. The bereaved feel as if they are dishonoring the dead by letting go.
- Identity Confusion
Identity confusion is common after the loss of a life-long partner or someone with whom the griever had a deep emotional attachment.
A parent might be unsure on whether to view the departed child as part of their family especially if the loss was through a miscarriage or stillbirth.
A surviving partner may find it very difficult to define themselves without the departed spouse, especially if they used to make important decisions together. The griever finds themselves paralyzed as they try to accommodate the preferences of the deceased.
- Deep Yearning for the Departed
The bereaved may continually yearn for the departed and desire for a reunion. Some grievers may exhibit suicidal tendencies.They feel trapped in the grief and suicide can be an option as they imagine that it will end their pain and bring the much-desired reunion with their departed loved one.
- Persistent Bitterness Related to the Cause of Death
Normal grief losses it’s grip on the griever as time progresses. A complicated griever, however, feels the same or more intense pain towards the cause of the death many months later. They have an immense sense of guilt over what they could have possibly done to prevent the death.
To some extent, they blame themselves for the loss. By refusing to let go of the pain, they feel like they are punishing themselves and making it up to the deceased for the griever’s inability to prevent the death.
Risk Factors of Complicated Grief
The following factors increase the chances of one developing complicated grief.
- Sudden/Unexpected Death
Sudden violent deaths put the bereaved at a higher risk of developing complicated grief. Death through road or airplane accidents hit those close to the deceased hard. The thought of the horror and pain that their deceased loved one could have gone through produces immense sorrow in the heart of the mourner.
Death through suicide attracts social stigma and complicates the loss further.
- Close or Dependent Relationship With the Deceased
The risk of complicated grief is higher in the loss of a life partner, child or a sibling. If the deceased was the main breadwinner, the close family members are likely to develop chronic grief. The major life stresses like financial difficulties aggravate their mourning and put them at a higher risk of developing complicated grief.
- Traumatic Childhood Experiences
Individuals who experienced traumatic experiences as children are at a higher risk of developing complicated grief. Painful unresolved childhood experiences affect an individuals outlook towards life.
Some individuals with a history of childhood trauma have a fear that life will end abruptly or that their relationships with their loved ones will be short-lived. They have a fearful outlook towards life. Death of a loved one may confirm their worst fears.
- Lack of a Social Support System
Family members, a religious community or friends form a critical support system for individuals who are going through loss and grief.
Support groups addressing a specific kind of loss e.g., spousal loss, child loss, loss through a particular road or plane clash are avenues to support individuals who are going through grief.
In the absence of such support systems, individuals are likely to develop complicated grief.
Although grieving is an experience which differs from person to person, a grieving process that does not show significant improvement by the end of the first year should concern the griever and those around him/her.
If you, a realtive, or a friend are displaying most of the signs discussed above, contact a mental health expert near you.
Several useful therapy options are available to you.