How to Cope with Complicated Grief

Teodora Ghiur on Dec 13, 2021 in Mood and Feelings

What is Complicated Grief?

Grief is a universal response to painful events that many people process through a series of stages, such as denial, anger, and acceptance. Unlike normal grief that follows a normal course, complicated grief occurs as a result of losing a loved one or undergoing significant stressful events. As its name suggests, this type of grief is usually accompanied by complex symptoms that hinder the natural healing course towards acceptance and integration. If you have ever been in a situation where you felt stuck or severely affected by someone’s death, you might have gone through your own season of complicated grief. In this article, you can find out more information about this recently recognized condition which can help you better recognize its symptoms in yourself or other people.

What are the main symptoms of Complicated Grief?

The day-to-day manifestations of complicated grief are variable and wide-ranging, which means that people who struggle with loss that leads to grief one can display a wide range of signs and symptoms. However, a general guideline for recognizing this condition can be conceptualized to include the following signs:

  • Chronic grief that remains constant even long after the loss occurred. In some people, this can manifest as a fixation on the death of their loved one without any signs of “working through”, integrating and accepting the unfortunate event;

  • An intense focus on the loss and its reminders (such as objects, people, circumstances related to the death) OR an excessive avoidance of those reminders (e.g., someone can deliberately and obsessively avoid looking at the objects belonging to the deceased person);

  • Intense feelings of despair, pain, helplessness, sorrow, anxiety, and anger in relation to the deceased person;

  • Difficulty accepting the death of the loved one;

  • Self-destructive behaviors (e.g. excessive alcohol or drug consumption) carried out with the intention to numb the pain caused by the unfortunate event;

  • The absence of signs that the bereaved person processes and integrates their loved one’s loss, even after many years past the event.

What to do if you are experiencing Complicated Grief?

Even normal grief can be highly consuming and taxing on someone’s mental health. Complicated grief can impose further challenges due to its complex nature, which is why people with this condition should be looked after by a mental health professional.

If you suspect you might be suffering from complicated grief, the best thing you can do for yourself is reaching for specialist support as soon as you can. It is normal for us to resort to self-protective mechanisms like repression, numbness, and denial when we face a permanent loss of someone important to us. Because of this, a mental health specialist can help us design an internal narrative of the tragic event while equipping us with healthy adaptive strategies to move through the different stages of the grieving process.

Remember that not even a clinician can erase the deep feelings of sadness that occur following someone’s death. Instead, they can help you move towards the acceptance stage of grief, where some sadness might still be present, but you are in a better position to reinvest back into your normal life.

What does Complicated Grief feel like?

Complicated grief can be unpredictable and consuming in its intensity, manifestations, and course. When going through this mental health challenge, many people might feel as if they have no control over the intense mix of sadness, anger, despair, and helplessness that arise with their loved one’s death. They experience a blend of acute pain when remembering their deceased loved one and thoughts, images, sounds, and memories that they cannot control or make sense of.

From the outside, this might look like the bereaved person being more interested in their inner world than the events happing outside of them. Some individuals experiencing complicated grief might suddenly show a loss of interest in the things they previously used to enjoy, as well as an inability to feel emotions of joy, connection and love. They might also talk excessively about their loss and put this at the center of their existence, or - at the opposite end of the spectrum - totally avoid any cue that reminds them of the loss.

From a behavioral standpoint, many people who undergo episodes of complicated grief can drastically change their daily routines. For example, they might start neglecting their physical health, engage in self-destructive behaviors, or avoid socializing, especially with people who might remind them of their deceased loved one.

What causes Complicated Grief?

While there is no identifiable cause of complicated grief, it is important to keep in mind that some people are more vulnerable to developing this condition than others. Some high-risk causes are:

  • Experiencing a shocking, unpredictable or painful death of a loved one;

  • Losing more than one person within a short timeframe;

  • Being present when the death of the loved one occurred or, conversely, wishing that one was present at the place and time of the tragic event;

  • Having a history of mental disorders that interfere with one’s resilience to accept and integrate painful life events such as death;

Getting past Complicated Grief

Interventions for complicated grief help people with this condition begin their healing process from their personal loss. Getting past complicated grief can involve a mix of bereavement therapy, coping mechanisms, and tools that help the bereaved person reinvest back into their life after their loss.

Another goal of healing from grief can also be treating the mental condition that might occur in response to the loved one’s death. For example, a mental health specialist can help you make sense of the experience while coping with the symptoms of any mental health disorder that you suffer from. However, unlike the treatment of a standalone mental illness, bereavement therapy helps individuals work through their feelings rather than setting an end goal related to their mental. Since the nature of complicated grief is complex and unpredictable, its treatment should mainly focus on helping individuals monitor their mental health and feelings, and integrate their loss in an adaptive and healthy manner.

How is normal grief different from Complicated Grief?

Although grief is the usual instinctive response to adversity and loss, the majority of people travel alongside a bumpy, twisted road on their way to acceptance. Eventually, they reach a stage where even though the sadness of the loss is still present, the loss takes a back seat while they return to their usual functioning. In complicated grief, however, this stage is not reached. Instead, people remain stuck in the obsessive thoughts or the initial shock they experienced at the onset of the event.


Unlike normal grief that usually reaches an acceptance stage, complicated grief is a lot more taxing on someone’s mental health. Given its complex nature, people dealing with this condition can greatly benefit from mental health support that helps them identify where they are in their grieving process and develop healthy coping strategies during their journey. If you think you might be at risk for complicated grief, the best thing you can do for your mental health is reach for professional support as soon as you can. If you are looking for someone to grief issues, you can look for someone in your area who can provide counseling services. You can simply find someone in your local area through by entering your zip code at the top of this website. 

Once you find a counselor, have an initial consultation, sometimes free of charge, and make sure they are a match for your needs. It is important that you feel safe and compatible with their counseling methods and approach.

Teodora Ghiur
Staff Writer for TherapyDen

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