What is Complicated Grief?
April 29, 2018
The term “complicated grief” is greatly misunderstood by the bereaved, in large part because the word “complicated” has recently become a pop culture buzzword. Many people have said to me, “ALL grief is complicated,” which is evidence of this misunderstanding. Because all grief is NOT complicated. The majority of people move toward restoration and healing in an expected, healthy — non-complicated — manner. So what does complicated mean in this context?
Think of it this way… you’ve heard of medical procedures that have “complications” when something doesn’t go as expected; something interferes with the expected trajectory of healing. In bereavement, a person is supposed to adapt and adjust to their new reality over time. But if the person feels/functions exactly the same way three years after the loss as he/she did three weeks after the loss, there is a complication.
Complicated grief is also known as “prolonged mourning disorder” or PGD, which I think is a much better way to describe it.
It is normal and expected that we will grieve and feel deep pain when we have a loss, but it is also normal to eventually find peace again. The process of healing depends on many factors, including:
. The relationship with the deceased (spouse, child, etc)
. The type of loss (violent, traumatic, illness, expected vs. unexpected, etc)
. The innate psychological make-up of the griever
. The quality of one’s family and community support
. Whether the death is socially acceptable
. Belief systems that can undermine healing
These are very brief descriptions and broad generalizations (for the sake of brevity).
In the last 40 years there has been a wave of new academic and medical research on grief, and we’ve also learned a lot from looking at how other cultures work with grief (thanks to mass media and the internet). Based on this information, we know that although the grief experience is different for everybody, there is a more or less normative trajectory for regaining equilibrium after a loss. When a person does not follow that trajectory, there are “complications,” and that is when help — such as counseling — is needed.
Important to note… grief counseling is a very specialized field, and most therapists and counselors are not specifically trained in that area. If you are considering counseling, please make sure the provider has specific training and experience with grief and trauma.