Complicated grief: How to cope with death

If the loss of a loved one consumes your mind and causes your relationships to suffer, you may be experiencing complicated grief.

Losing a loved one is one of the most painful events you’ll experience. Besides sadness, you may feel anxiety, longing, and even shame, especially in the acute stage immediately after the loss. To deal with these emotions, you’ll need to process them through the five stages of grief, and hopefully, pass to the integrated stage of grief. That means grief still exists, but you’re able to remember the deceased person in a positive way while carrying on with your life.
It’s possible, however, to get stuck in the acute stage for a long period of time and never enter the integration stage. If this has happened to you, grief feels like it has paralyzed you from moving forward with life. This is medically known as “complicated grief” or “prolonged grief.”

How to apply 5 stages of grief to your grieving process

What is complicated grief?

Healthy grieving turns into complicated grief when the loss of the loved one consumes your mind and causes your relationships to suffer. You may develop social anxiety that leads to isolation. You may feel like the loss of the loved one has damaged your life beyond repair.
Complicated grief differs from depression when you have extreme thoughts, like wishing you’d died with your loved one or thinking he or she may reappear. You may even obsess over reminders of loss or avoid them to keep from triggering debilitating emotions you can’t manage. If you haven’t escaped the talons of grief within six months, it’s likely you are suffering from complicated grief.
Prolonged grief occurs more often in older adults and females. Certain factors can increase your chances of developing complicated grief:

  • The death was unexpected or violent.
  • You have a pre-existing anxiety disorder or history of depression.
  • You had a traumatic childhood.
  • You’ve lost your support network.
  • You’re facing major financial burdens at the same time as the death.
  • You have lost a child. (A study reported in the journal of Pediatrics found that half of all mothers who lost children to sudden infant syndrome (SIDS) suffered from complicated grief.)

How complicated grief affects you

If left untreated, complicated grief can harm you physically, mentally, and socially. It might lead to restless sleep, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, and anxiety so severe it turns into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Complicated grief can increase your risks of developing a serious physical illness, like heart disease, cancer, or high blood pressure.

13 signs you should seek grief counseling

How to cope with complicated grief

Be patient with yourself and remember you’re not alone. Everyone processes grief in different ways and at varying speeds. It may not be possible to prevent complicated grief, but you can take some steps to start healing:

  • If the death is anticipated, visit a grief counselor before the loss occurs or immediately after to reduce the effects. Grief counseling can help you develop coping skills, change negative thought patterns, and avoid harmful behaviors.
  • Address your daily needs first and foremost. Re-establish healthy sleep patterns, eat healthy food, exercise, and plan events you find fun. When you can manage basic needs, you can get a better grasp on anxiety.
  • Don’t make major life changes. You aren’t in the right frame of mind to be building a new house or planning that dream vacation.
  • Spend time with supportive and caring people. If your network is weak, seek help online or through grief support groups.
  • Try to remind yourself to live in the present, not in the past.
  • Don’t self-medicate to numb sadness or to help you fall asleep because it could easily turn into substance abuse.
  • If you have not moved past the symptoms of complicated grief after one year, you may want to talk to your doctor about medication or psychotherapy.

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Photo credit: iStock

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