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While dealing with loss is always difficult, in some cases, the intensity and duration of grief that’s experienced after the death of a loved one moves beyond a normal experience and begins to affect long term emotional health and happiness.

For most people, feelings of grief diminish in severity over time, as the loss is accepted and as you move on with your life; but for some people, grief seems unending and it doesn’t seem to get better as time passes - in some cases, it even seems to get worse.

When grief lasts for an unusually long time with unusual severity, it is known as complicated grief (or prolonged grief). It is a mental health condition that interferes with a person’s ability to leave a normal, happy and healthy life and it’s a condition that merits treatment.

An estimated 10% to 20% of bereaved people, (in America, roughly 1 million people) suffer with complicated grief in any given year.1

Symptoms of Complicated Grief

Losing a loved one causes powerful feelings of loss in most people – and it is normal to experience intense bereavement symptoms in the aftermath of a death. Most people will eventually experience a lessening in severity of grief symptoms; but someone experiencing complicated grief will not. While complicated bereavement symptoms will vary by the individual, some common symptoms include:

  • Feeling an inability to move on in life – developing a preoccupation with the daily experience of grief
  • Feeling an intense sense of loss
  • Losing trust in others
  • Feeling like life now holds no meaning
  • Feeling like you can’t accept the fact of the death
  • Feeling depressed and unable to enjoy life
  • Feeling bitter or irritable
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Feeling unable to live a normal daily routine and meet normal daily responsibilities
  • Preferring to avoid social situations 2

If after several months you still experience very intense symptoms, such as those listed above and you feel like your experience of grief is affecting your ability to live a normal and happy life, then it is time to seek out some professional assistance.

Grief Counseling

Grief is a healthy and natural process of movement that ends with an acceptance of a loss. It’s a process that requires movement towards an end goal, but people experiencing complicated grief get ‘stuck’ in their bereavement and often need some assistance to continue down this process of bereavement to a satisfactory conclusion.

Grief Counseling can help you to:

  1. Gain a feeling of acceptance about the loss
  2. Work through emotional pain
  3. Fully adjust to an environment (living) without your loved one
  4. Move the deceased person to a new location in your emotions (not present)3

There are many different forms of grief counseling, many based around interpersonal psychotherapy, but as fairly newly recognized condition (not yet recognized by the APA in the DSMVr-4) complicated grief treatments remain fairly untested. 

One form of counseling that has shown promise is called Complicated Grief Therapy (CGT) a form of therapy that marries cognitive behavioral therapy with aspects of trauma therapy.

Complicated Grief Therapy

In CGT, you may be asked to perform ‘exposure’ techniques, such as to repeatedly tell the story of the death or to hold imaginary therapist guided conversations with the deceased. As you work on coming to terms with the death and working through feelings such as loss, guilt or resentment, you will also explore with the therapist activities in life that give joy or pleasure. You will explore your new role in a life without your loved one and make new goals for living this life to the fullest.

In one study of subjects given CGT or interpersonal therapy, 51% of those given CGT experienced significant improvement in complicated grief symptoms compared to only 28% of those given interpersonal therapy that made similar gains.4

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Page last updated Aug 17, 2010

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