In every person’s life, some form of loss is inevitable. It might come in the form of the death of a loved one, the loss of a pet, or even the loss of a job or academic status. In each of these situations, grief is a normal response, which can take many different forms. However, grief can become an ongoing presence in a person’s life, taking over his or her thoughts and becoming a primary focus in daily events. This is known as complicated grief, traumatic grief, or prolonged grief, and it may require working with a behavioral health specialist to overcome.
Causes and signs of grief
Grief may be triggered by many different events, not just following death. Ending a relationship, being in an automobile accident, or suffering a burglary or robbery are all possible triggers for grief. When these events do occur, grief may take many shapes. It is important to recognize that everyone grieves in his or her own way, and there is no right way to handle a loss or tragedy. Often, the signs of grief can overlap with common signs of depression, but these indications will tend to be felt most significantly immediately following a loss, gradually subsiding in the subsequent weeks and months. Some of the most common possible signs of grief include:
- Crying and general feelings of sadness
- Oversleeping or difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
- Questioning personal beliefs and relationships
- Changes in appetite, unexpected weight gain or loss
- Withdrawal from social activities and usual hobbies
- Difficulty focusing on work, school, or other tasks
- Trouble maintaining personal relationships
- Intermittent feelings of sadness, sorrow, or depression
- Lethargy and overall lack of energy
While grieving, an individual may grieve openly or do so privately. Because everyone grieves differently, each person may require unique types of support from friends, loved ones, and mental health professionals.
Complicated grief and its signs
Complicated grief occurs when the process of recovery is halted, and the return to a new normal in life does not take place. Signs of complicated grief may be clear from the initial point of loss, or they may worsen as the grieving process progresses. However, there is not a consensus on what defines complicated grief. By some definitions, complicated grief occurs when key marks of grief, such as difficulty moving on and bitterness and anger over the loss, persist longer than six months. Other definitions focus more on the presence of signs and symptoms of complicated grief, which include:
- Anger and frequent mood swings
- Reluctance to return to work and normal routines
- Obsession with a deceased loved one, such as refusal to donate the individual’s old clothing or alter his or her bedroom
- Aversion to reminders of the loved one, and refusal to talk about the individual in conversation
- Ongoing issues keeping up with work or school
- Intense feelings of sadness, bitterness, or longing
- Substance abuse and self-destructive behaviors
- Thoughts of suicide
- Decreased attention to personal grooming and appearance
- Aggravated symptoms of existing mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety disorder
It is estimated that about 10-20% of people will have an extended grieving period experiencing complicated grief. There are many possible reasons why an individual may have a more traumatic grieving process. For example, the individual may have been highly dependent on a deceased loved one, or the circumstances surrounding the loss may be considered taboo or otherwise uncomfortable to discuss, such as with a miscarriage or overdose related death.
Seeking help for coping with grief
With any type of loss, it is helpful to speak with a mental health counselor or attend a support group. However, when you experience the signs of complicated grief, it is essential to seek help. Your chosen mental health professional may offer a variety of options, including treatment of co-occurring disorders—such as substance abuse or depression—group therapy, family therapy, and holistic mind-body therapy.