Understanding Complicated Grief Disorder

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Understanding Complicated Grief Disorder

Grief is an inevitable part of life. Everyone experiences grief at some point, and it is an emotional response to loss. The grieving process can be very difficult to deal with, and it may take some time for an individual to adjust to the change that comes with loss. It’s normal to take time to heal and come to terms with a loss. Most people find that through self-care and the passing of time, they are able to find peace. But for some, the grieving process can be more challenging and difficult to cope with. If these emotions linger or worsen over an extended period, it can leave those affected feeling isolated and alone.

What is Complicated Grief Disorder?

Complicated grief disorder (also known as prolonged grief disorder) is a mental health condition seen after experiencing a significant loss, such as death, a severe divorce, or any other major life change that could cause grieving. It affects a person’s ability to cope with a loss and move forward, and it is characterized by intense and prolonged feelings of grief and sadness that interfere with a person’s daily functioning.

Experiencing a type of normal grief is a natural part of being human, but it is usually easier over time. However, when grief becomes overpowering and persistent, it can develop into a complex grief disorder. Those with complex grief may feel as though their suffering is all-encompassing, existing in a world where only their loss exists. They may find it difficult to stop dwelling on their loss.


Causes of Complicated Grief

Complicated grief disorder is a persistent complex bereavement disorder that is not fully understood. The exact causes are unclear, but it is often found that a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors have a role in its onset. Those who have suffered from traumatic events, have a history of substance abuse or have underlying mental health conditions are often at a higher risk of experiencing complicated grief.


Risk Factors for Complicated Grief Disorder

Loss is an inevitable experience for everyone at some point in their life. Ten to twenty percent of individuals who undergo the grieving process may encounter complicated grief disorder. Although this disorder can affect anyone facing a loss, there exist certain risk factors that influence your chances.

These factors are elaborated below.

  • Losing multiple people in quick succession
  • Being in a codependent relationship with a lost loved one
  • The loss was sudden or unexpected
  • Watching someone suffer from an illness before passing
  • Having a history of mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD


Signs and Symptoms of Complicated Grief Disorder

Grief is expected to be intense in its early stages, and sometimes the symptoms of complicated grief disorder are hard to differentiate from healthy grieving. However, while people express grief in different ways, the following behaviors are often warning signs of complicated grief disorder:

  • Obsessing over the deceased
  • Debilitating and relentless sadness
  • Increased irritability and low threshold for other people
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Declining hygiene or physical appearance
  • Insistent reclusive behavior
  • Anger and resentment toward life
  • Separating from people and activities previously enjoyed
  • Lack of motivation
  • Inability to complete tasks
  • Reckless, impulsive, or self-harming behaviors
  • Suicidal thoughts and ideas


Coping with Complicated or Prolonged Grief

Even though complicated grief is a severe condition, it’s perfectly normal to feel a broad range of emotions following a loss, and it’s acceptable to seek assistance if necessary. Grieving is a very natural process, and it takes time to process.

Coping with grief can include:

  • Talking about your feelings with loved ones or a therapist
  • Investing time in self-care activities such as exercise or meditation
  • Joining a support group
  • Setting small goals for yourself
  • Finding space and time to process your emotions


Treatment for Complicated Grief

Therapy is the most effective way to treat complicated grief disorder. Various methods in therapy can help a person manage their symptoms and identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors related to grief and any stemming mental disorders. Therapy can also help them improve their relationships with others and work on communicating their feelings effectively. Medication can also be prescribed to manage symptoms such as anxiety or depression.

The aim of therapy for complicated grief is not to erase the memories that patients have of their loved ones or to magically eliminate intense grief. Instead, treatment aims at resolution, acceptance, and forward-thinking. Using a blend of evidence-based psychotherapies, medicine management, and holistic therapies like art and yoga can help you take your life back.



The following treatment modalities are predominantly used to treat those suffering from Complicated Grief Disorder:

  • Individual Therapy
  • Group Therapy
  • Family Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT)
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (CPT)
  • Neurofeedback Therapy
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)



Antidepressants are typically used along with psychotherapy to provide comprehensive treatment for complicated grief symptoms. They help improve symptoms such as depression and anxiety by altering the balance of chemicals in the brain that affect mood.

Types of antidepressants:

  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs): Examples of SSRIs include fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa), and escitalopram (Lexapro).
  • Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs): Examples of SNRIs include venlafaxine (Effexor) and duloxetine (Cymbalta).
  • Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs): Examples of tricyclic antidepressants include amitriptyline (Elavil), clomipramine (Anafranil), and imipramine (Tofranil).
  • Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOIs): Examples of monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) include isocarboxazid (Marplan), phenelzine (Nardil), and tranylcypromine (Parnate).
  • Atypical Antidepressants: Examples of atypical antidepressants include bupropion (Wellbutrin), mirtazapine (Remeron), and trazodone (Desyrel).


Holistic Therapies

Holistic therapies help patients shift their focus beyond surviving relationships to developing new personal goals and learning to embrace life after loss. Practices like yoga, meditation, exercise, acupuncture, art, and music also help restore emotional balance and reinforce a positive outlook.

Holistic treatments include:

  • Art Therapy
  • Music Therapy
  • Yoga Therapy
  • Somatic Therapy
  • Nutrition and Exercise
  • Life Skills Training


Overcoming Grief

Losing a loved one or experiencing any other major loss can be an incredibly difficult experience. However, when grief becomes complicated and interferes with your life, it is important to find professional help. Complicated grief disorder is a treatable condition, and with care and support, it’s possible to overcome it and find a sense of peace.

Remember to be kind to yourself and to take things one day at a time. The important thing is to understand that grieving is a natural process involving intense emotional pain, and everyone has their own way of dealing with it. If you or someone you know is struggling with grief, do not hesitate to seek help. A mental health professional can provide the guidance and support needed to cope with the loss and move forward with life. If you need any help finding your way, get in touch with us.

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