The grief you feel after losing someone close to you can be intense and overwhelming. Shock, profound sadness, guilt, deep longing, anger – bereaved people often describe these emotions as a thick fog that descends over their lives, keeping them from seeing or feeling things the way that they used to.

And, like fog, the intensity of grief usually fades with time. While you’ll always miss your loved one, you gradually come to terms with their passing. You begin to find pleasure in their memory – and in your life – once more.

But what about when grief doesn’t fade away, or even becomes stronger? When, years later, you are still overwhelmed? Around 7 to 10% of bereaved people struggle with this condition, called complicated grief. Here, we’ll talk about why this happens, how to tell if you’re affected, and how to cope.


What is complicated grief?

Complicated grief is strong, overwhelming grief that doesn’t fade with time. Instead, complicated grief keeps the bereaved person in a heightened state of mourning, unable to cope with their feelings, move on, or adapt to life without the person they’ve lost.

That said, it’s normal to have good and bad days when you’re grieving. Even a long time after the initial loss, an important anniversary or seeing something that reminds you of your loved one can make you feel just as overcome as the first day. Grief becomes complicated when you end up stuck in that moment, caught up in painful, unhealthy thoughts and longing.

It’s important to remember that this not a choice: those experiencing complicated grief can’t help the way they feel.


What are the signs of complicated grief?

Complicated grief disorder can be hard to separate from “normal” grief, because a lot of the feelings involved are the same. With complicated grief, however, they last longer. They also remain deeply painful and may even keep you from living a normal life.

Here are some of the complicated grief symptoms you might experience:

  • Feeling intense, unrelenting longing for the person who has died
  • Being unable to think about anything other than their death or the way they died
  • A deep sadness, depression, hopelessness, emptiness, or numbness that doesn’t seem to go away
  • Denial: having difficulty accepting the fact that your loved one has died
  • Feeling bitter or angry about your loss, becoming irritable and easily frustrated
  • Believing that life is pointless or meaningless without your loved one
  • Feeling alone and detached from friends and family – or unable to trust them
  • Finding yourself unable to look back on happy memories of the person who has died
  • Feeling guilty or blaming yourself for the way they died
  • Being unable to enjoy life and the activities that used to make you happy
  • Feeling that life is no longer worth living without your loved one, or a desire to be with them, which can feed into suicidal thoughts

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call Samaritans any time on 116 123 or email [email protected]. They work around the clock, every day of the week, and anything you tell their friendly volunteers is completely confidential.

The people around you might also notice that you are:

  • Obsessively collecting – or avoiding – reminders of the person who has died
  • Having trouble following your normal routine, like going to work or school
  • Not looking after yourself – for example, not eating, sleeping or washing
  • Withdrawing socially – not seeing friends or family, possibly never leaving the home
  • Acting self-destructively, e.g. drinking too much or taking drugs
  • Becoming defensive and angry when questioned about the grief

Many researchers now believe that it’s possible to identify a case of “normal” grief vs. complicated grief at about six months after a death. But it’s important to remember that grief is different for everyone. There’s no set time limit on feelings of loss.


What are the reasons for complicated grief?

No one knows for sure what causes one person to experience complicated grief while another does not. There are a few risk factors that are thought make it more likely, however, like:

  • Losing more than one person in a short space of time
  • Grieving someone who died unexpectedly, early or violently
  • Losing someone you relied very heavily on, or who relied very heavily on you
  • Being there when the person died, or caring for them during a long terminal illness
  • The loss of a child
  • Having experienced a mental illness previously, particularly depression or PTSD
  • Being troubled by a general lack of information about the way they died
  • Being unable to mourn the way you usually would – for example, if you have been kept from burying someone as their body has not been found
  • Suffering a substance abuse disorder

That said, complex grief can affect anyone, after any death. If you are struggling, don’t be afraid to reach out for help.


How to get through complicated grief

If any of the complicated grief symptoms above sound familiar to you, it’s important to ask for help and support:

  • Your GP can help you find a local bereavement support group or counsellor, as well as offering other kinds of support. They can also direct you to services that can help you tackle any issues with alcohol or drug abuse.
  • The charity Cruse Bereavement Care runs a helpline from 9-5, Monday to Friday. Their volunteers are happy just to chat, but they can also direct you to local groups and other face-to-face services. Call 0808 808 1677​.
  • If you need someone to talk to right now, any time of the day, night or week, the Samaritans helpline is always open. Call them on 116 123 or email [email protected].

You may also find our guide to coping with grief a good place to start.


How to help someone with complicated grief disorder

It’s not always easy to help someone who is experiencing complicated grief. They may not be aware that they have a problem. Guilt is a common aspect of it as well, and sufferers may not feel as though they should be “allowed” to feel better.

As well as encouraging and helping the person with complicated grief to get professional help, there are some simple ways you can support them. Meet up with them or call them regularly, so that they feel less alone. Let them talk to you about how they are feeling, listening carefully and without judgement.

And, if they will let you, you can also try to help them with the day-to-day activities they are struggling with. Cooking small meals to tempt them, babysitting kids, tidying, giving them time and space to nap or take a long bath are all simple things that can make a difference.


If you have a question about complicated grief, or if you’d like to share your experience of it, please add a private comment using the box below. Our friendly support team are here to help.

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