What Is Complicated Grief?

Grief is not a disorder, a disease or a sign of weakness. It is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price you pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.
~Dr. Earl A. Grollman 

 You may have heard of the effort afoot to place “complicated grief” in the next issue of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-V), which is the most widely used psychiatric reference in the world. Mental health professionals and researchers have been working to agree upon specific criteria for identifying and assessing complicated grief – in order to get payment for treatment and funding for research, to identify those at risk, and to distinguish depression from complicated grief.
The concern among many experts and practitioners in the field of grief and bereavement is to what extent this effort to label complicated mourning as a psychiatric disorder “pathologizes” normal grief. Some believe that grief should not be a diagnostic category at all, because that in itself makes it a problem. Experience demonstrates that the distinction between uncomplicated grief and complicated grief is not clear, since most signs and symptoms occur along a continuum from less severe to very severe. Even in papers published in the professional literature, the terms that are used to describe it keep changing (e.g., complicated mourning, abnormal grief, pathologic grief, neurotic grief and traumatic grief) – and everyone agrees that a lot more research in these areas is needed. The condition is not limited to the loss of a person through death, either. People can experience complicated grief following any significant loss: a home, a career, loss through infertility, or loss of a cherished companion animal, for example.

Several years ago I heard one grief therapist suggest that a better term for complicated grief might be compound grief (as in “compound fracture”). “Temperatures of 99 and 106 are both fevers,” she said, “and the objective is the same: to get the fever down. If we let it run its course, the body will heal itself. The struggle toward rebirth is a necessary part of the process, in order for us to grow. Literally fighting for one’s life is not pathology, not disease – it is health.” She made the point that we human beings are designed to heal naturally – physically, emotionally and spiritually – and grief is a natural process. When it is interfered with, she said, it can become complicated.

So just what is complicated grief? It is the usual and expected grief reactions taken to the extreme – when normal grief reactions become so severe and last so long as to significantly impair one’s functioning in the world: socially, occupationally, and in activities of daily living. It is grief that becomes chronic or prolonged, is delayed or inhibited in some way, or is distorted by other underlying issues or pre-existing conditions. Danger signals include suicidal thoughts and / or plans to act upon such thoughts; self-destructive behaviors; severe mental disorganization; deep feelings of guilt, regrets and low self-esteem; continued irritability or violent outbursts of rage; radical, sudden, shocking changes in lifestyle; and physical symptoms that imitate those of the deceased. Contributing factors include the nature of the loss or death (sudden, violent, multiple, etc.), the relationship between the bereaved and the deceased, the personality and life experiences of the bereaved, and other social issues.
 

Anyone reading the posts in the online Grief Healing Discussion Groups I moderate will quickly discover that severe symptoms that persist for many months (and even years) do not necessarily indicate complicated or pathological grief. Since there is no simple formula for determining when grief becomes complicated (that is, how severe is too severe; how long is too long; and how dysfunctional is too dysfunctional), when in doubt it is always wise to seek an assessment by a qualified mental health practitioner who is familiar with complications of grief and psychiatric disorders.

And in a sense, all grief is complicated, because any significant loss turns our entire life upside down, and we are faced with learning to live in a world forever changed. In the words of clinical psychologist and certified grief specialist J. Shep Jeffreys,

I offer yet another impression of ‘normal’ grief and complicated grief. I approach all grief reactions as a complication in the life of the individual who seeks help with this human phenomenon. We travel life’s roadway and suddenly, around the bend, the bridge is out. A death, a life-threatening diagnosis, accident, layoff notice, or other traumatic change has painfully altered the course of our journey and requires a new way of looking at life. The process of grieving represents a disruption, a need for altering our direction, our plans, and how we identify ourselves in the post-loss / changed world. Normal grief presents many complications and deserves the help of a care provider who is an exquisite witness. People who are grieving deserve care at whatever level their situation requires whether we call it complicated or not. At all times, individual differences must be taken into consideration when determining how we as care providers will serve them.
– J. Shep Jeffreys, Ed.D., C.T., in Helping Grieving People: When Tears Are Not Enough, Brunner-Routledge, © 2005, p. 293.


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© by Marty Tousley, CNS-BC, FT, DCC

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