What does it mean if your grief over a loved one’s end of life never seems to fade? Of course, the stages of grief affect no two people the same, and for most people, grief never truly goes away. It settles in the background of one’s emotional life, and the pain begins to lessen, becoming more and more bearable as the person heals over time. But for some, grief simply never eases up. The grieving person can’t seem to stop thinking about his or her lost loved one. It feels like time moves on without them. Memories of the loved one dominate their thoughts, and the future has little meaning or purpose. Perhaps they feel bitter or angry. If this sounds like your experience, then perhaps a recent term may offer some guiding insight: complicated grief.
Complicated grief is an intense, ongoing form of grief that takes over one’s life and keeps the person from moving on. “Complicated” refers to whatever factors inhibit the healing process and, according to the Center for Complicated Grief, can involve numerous factors, from the “characteristics of the bereaved person, to the nature of the relationship with the deceased person, the circumstances of the death, or to things that occurred after the death.” With so many complicating possibilities, it seems that, like any two experiences of grief, no two experiences of complicated grief are quite the same. But no matter how it happens, an estimated 15% of people may develop this condition. So if you feel bad about “not being able to get over it,” then know that you are by no means alone.
How can you treat your complicated grief? The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide compares complicated grief with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although complicated grief “is not one of the disorders in the American Psychiatric Association official diagnostic manual,” the relation to these other psychiatric disorders illuminates how psychiatric treatment can help. Traumatic grief therapy helps the person in grief work through, understand and therefore manage the story of his or her loved one’s death. It helps them relieve stress and free themselves from the burden of grief by learning how to concentrate on happy memories and positive activities. In short, it helps the patient rediscover value in the world.
Although informative and well-intentioned, however, I almost hesitate to bring up Harvard’s language of psychiatry, the terms of which can be reductive. I’d prefer to emphasize the natural process of grief and do not wish to make those with complicated grief feel like something is inherently wrong with them. The term “complicated grief” is useful insofar as it helps identify a problem—which is the first step to healing. What are your thoughts on this particular idea of grief? We look forward to your thoughts below.
For more information on complicated grief and an extensive list of possible symptoms, check out this article from The Huffington Post.
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