What is Complicated Grief? (& 3 Ways to Cope)

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Published Date|
February 22, 2024

What is Complicated Grief? (& 3 Ways to Cope)

Grief is a normal response to loss. It’s normal to feel intense physical and emotional symptoms, from not being able to sleep or eat, to deep feelings of sadness and crying.

But what happens when these symptoms just don’t go away?

Here at KMA Therapy, we know that grief looks different for everyone, but if your grief continues to interfere with your quality of life after a lot of time has passed, you might need some extra support. For over 15 years, we’ve helped our clients navigate grief and loss in order to find a sense of peace in their lives.

After reading this article, you’ll know what complicated grief is, signs you’re experiencing complicated grief, and three ways you can cope with complicated grief.

What is Complicated Grief?

Complicated grief is a lasting type of grief. When experiencing complicated grief, your physical and emotional symptoms of grief don’t improve over time and they interfere with your ability to live your life.

Complicated grief affects 10 - 20% of grievers, regardless of their age or when they experience loss. Although complicated grief is a separate issue from depression and PTSD, they can often occur together.

what is complicated grief

Signs of complicated grief include:

  • Inability to accept the death of a loved one
  • Overwhelming and/or intrusive thoughts
  • Struggling to find a sense of purpose
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Suicidal ideation

If you’re experience thoughts of harming yourself or thoughts of suicide, remember that you’re not alone and help is available. 

Visit the Suicide Crisis Hotline for a list of resources in Toronto. You can also call or text 988 for immediate crisis support. If your safety is at risk, please call 911. 

What is Compounded Grief?

Compounded grief occurs when you experience multiple losses, usually over a short period of time. 

The losses you experience may be different in nature, and seem easier to cope with on their own, but because you’re experiencing them together it can make your grief feel much more intense.

Some experiences that can contribute to compounded grief include:

  • Losing your pet
  • Losing a loved one
  • A breakup or a divorce
  • Losing your job or your home
  • Being diagnosed with a health condition or illness (or witnessing a loved one be diagnosed)

Compounded grief can often lead to complicated grief because you don’t have time to fully recover from one loss before experiencing another. Even if the losses occur further apart, you may re-experience the grief from an older loss while going through a recent loss.

Isn’t Grief Normal?

Yes, grief is a normal and healthy response when you’ve experienced a loss. It’s not easy to go through, but many people are able to cope with the grieving process through the support of friends and family.

The most common indicator of complicated grief is when symptoms of grief persist for longer than one year after the loss and do not begin to lessen over time.

It’s normal to experience intense sadness and shock after losing a loved one, and the grieving process looks differently for everyone. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve.

But if you think you could be experiencing complicated grief, reaching out for professional support can be one of the best ways to help yourself.

3 Ways to Cope with Complicated Grief

Dealing with complicated grief is isolating and overwhelming, but support is available. These three steps can help you understand your grief and figure out how to cope with it in order to feel better in your daily life.

1. Protect yourself against complicated grief

The reasons why some people develop complicated grief and some people don’t aren’t completely understood by mental health professionals, but there are some protective factors that can help prevent it.

Factors that can help prevent complicated grief include:

  • Having strong stress management skills
  • Leaning on friends and family for support
  • Managing other existing mental health conditions (such as anxiety or depression)

While all loss can be traumatic, losing someone in a violent or unexpected way can also put you at greater risk of experiencing trauma and complicated grief. Seeking out professional support to process trauma can help prevent you from experiencing complicated grief.

2. Open up about how you’re feeling

When you’re grieving, it can be tempting to keep your feelings to yourself or pretend they don’t exist at all.

While compartmentalizing your feelings can help you survive in the early stages of grief, refusing to acknowledge your feelings can also contribute to complicated grief.

It can be hard to open up about your feelings if you don’t even know where to start.

If you’re struggling to talk about your feelings, try writing about them in a journal before saying them out loud. It can be helpful to reflect on how you feel without the pressure of making someone else understand your emotions.

After you’ve written about your feelings, try sharing them with a trusted friend or family member. Talking about your grief can help you feel less isolated, and sharing positive memories about the person you lost can be comforting.

If you don’t have anyone in your social circle who you feel comfortable sharing with, or you simply want to connect with others who understand what you’re going through, you can also attend a grief support group.

3. Attend therapy for grief

Therapy is often the most effective way to manage and treat complicated grief.

Attending therapy for grief can help you:

  • Develop coping mechanisms
  • Understand different types of grief
  • Acknowledge and process your feelings and emotions
  • Learn how to manage symptoms that are interfering with your quality of life

While a variety of different types of therapy can help with complicated grief, one of the most common is Complicated Grief Treatment (CGT). CGT has an emphasis on helping you develop resilience, build self-regulation skills, and adjust your relationship and connect with the person you lost.

Next Steps for Beginning Grief Therapy

After reading this article, you know what complicated grief is and three coping strategies.

Here at KMA Therapy, we know how isolating complicated grief can be, and we’re here to help support you.

Reaching out for support with grief can be challenging. Fill out our Registration Form if you’d like our team to reach out to you with more information, or download our free Therapy 101 Guide if you’d like to learn more about how therapy could work for you.

You can also explore our Grief and Bereavement Therapy page to see how grief counselling works at KMA Therapy.

If you’d prefer to keep reading, these articles have more resources for you:

Author |
Emily Weatherhead
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