There are few emotional experiences as universal to the human condition as grief. The deep empty sadness that follows a loss comes in many shapes and sizes and can often be overwhelming to the bereaved. For some people, grief progresses in a linear way. As time goes by, the feelings feel less and less raw. However, many individuals experience a more complex and less linear relationship with grief.
In the 1990s mental health professionals began to recognize this more severe and prolonged sense of grief, referring to it as “complicated grief.” Complicated grief is commonly associated with psychological dysfunction long after the precipitating incident. Those with this form of grief often find themselves constantly preoccupied with thoughts of the bereaved or guilt regarding the loss. These symptoms can lead to maladaptive behaviors, such as substance abuse and self-isolation (Nakajima, 2018).
Complicated grief usually occurs when the healing process is impeded. This allows for the intense feelings of acute grief to become chronic in nature. You can think of grief just like a physical wound. Under normal circumstances a wound heals over time; However, sometimes, the circumstances surrounding a wound can complicate the healing process (such as a wound sustained in a dirty environment resulting in an infection; Shear, 2012). Just like a complicated physical wound, complicated grief is best tackled with the help of a healthcare professional. A complicated grief therapist can help guide a grieving individual through important grieving milestones, allowing for the proper processing of the situation. In this way, the bereaved is provided with a supportive scaffolding that can help to overcome the intractable feelings of grief (Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University, 2021). Additionally, I believe it is important to add that specialized grief therapy has been shown to be significantly more effective in helping complicated grief, when compared to traditional treatments for depression (Kecmanovic, 2021; Weir, 2018).
Though grief is often used to describe the feelings following the death of a loved one, it can apply to a much broader collection of experiences. From the loss of an opportunity to the loss of one’s conception of self following the diagnosis of an illness, grief finds its way into every nook and cranny of our lives. In fact, I would argue that most of us are currently in the process of grieving. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been innumerable and sorting out our own feelings of loss can be incredibly difficult. I hope some of the information we discussed in this article will help those of you struggling to find healthy ways of processing these complex emotions!