The Difference Between Complicated Grief and Normal Grief

If you are struggling with complicated grief. You do not have to live with such long term, debilitating pain. There is a way back to healthy grief. Loss and love can walk side by side into the future that is patiently waiting for you.
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Complicated grief dominated my life for a good part of the last 10 years. Living with complicated grief leaves little hope for the future. I struggled to find an escape from the pain of my losses, and my pain became a type of prison for me, at times feeling like a life sentence. I felt as if I was stuck in my own hellish Groundhog Day, every day offering the same pain, a pain that overwhelmed all of my experiences. I could not find a way to move forward.

I am also a medical professional. I believe that my personal experience of complicated grief, combined with my experience in the medical field, has given me a unique perspective on the subject. I have become aware that there seems to be some confusion amongst grievers about the differences between grief and complicated grief. There is also some misunderstanding surrounding the mention of a time line for grief. My hope is to clear some of this up for those of us who live within the world of grief.

Grief is a game changer in life. Not only have we lost someone who was a vital part of our lives, we have lost the future that we so naively believed was going to unfold before us, just as planned. We are left with an uncertain, and ill-defined future, and no instructions as to how get to a place where there seems to be any future worth living.

"The truth is, even when we are able find a way to move forward without our loved one, life will never be the same. We will never be the same."

There will always be a void in our lives, whether one year, ten years or two decades after our loss. This is the reality of grief.

But what happens when, no matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to create a new future for ourselves? We are stuck living in the past, where our lost loved one lives. That is the only place we can find comfort.

We avoid going places and doing things that remind us of them and our loss. We choose to remain home, yearning for our lost loved one, certain that we can somehow wish our past life into the present moment. We also tend to isolate ourselves from others, because there is no way they can possibly understand our pain. We cannot find a new identity without our loved one. We are stuck and unable to move forward. This is the unfortunate and painful reality of complicated grief.

This is not to imply the complicated griever's loss is greater, or that the pain is stronger than someone who is grieving normally.

"It does mean that something has gone wrong in the grieving process, and the griever can become crippled by their loss."

These warning signs can be seen as soon as six months after the loss.

There has been concern amongst grievers, and professionals, about placing any time limit to grief because we are not honoring its natural process. I understand and agree. We will always grieve the loss of our loved one. But, it is important to recognize that for someone who is experiencing complicated grief, time is of the essence in recognizing and treating a grief that has become disabling.

The statement, "If you have been grieving for more than six months to a year, and you are still in the acute stages of grief, you may be experiencing complicated grief," requires further clarification and may be causing confusion about the use of a time limit in complicated grief.

I don't believe this statement is meant to imply that everyone should be over their grief within a year. I believe that it is meant to be used as a tool for recognizing complicated grief when it is happening, so that the complicated griever can be guided back onto the tracks of healthy grieving. Early intervention in complicated grief is important.

I see this as a correctable miscommunication between the concepts of grief and complicated grief, between grievers themselves, and also between professionals and the population of grievers that they care for.

What you should know about Complicated Grief:

According to Dr. Holly G. Prigerson, from Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, seven to 10 percent of grievers will end up struggling with complicated grief. These grievers remain in the intense and acute stages of grief, and loss, for years, sometimes decades. Sometimes they never recover.

An article by John Wilson, "The Nature of Complicated Grief," helped me to differentiate complicated grief from normal grief. Here are some factors that are known to put a griever at increased risk for CG:

•Death of a child or spouse
•Lack of family or social support
•Issues around how they found out about the death
•History of anxiety or depression before the loss
•The death was violent or traumatic
•Long term marriage with a strong dependence on the lost spouse

The complicated griever tends to be young, female, has experienced multiple losses, and the death of their loved one was sudden and unexpected.

Following are some of the symptoms that can indicate your grief has shifted into complicated grief if you are still experiencing them six months to a year after the death of your loved one:

•Persistent and invasive thoughts of your loss that disrupt daily activities
•Avoiding or feeling consumed by reminders/memories of your loved one
•Unable to accept the finality of the death
•Intense yearning for your lost loved one
•Feeling angry about the death
•Feeling numb or confused, developing a loss of trust in others
•Isolating from others
•Suffering physical symptoms similar to that experienced in the deceased's final illness
•Feeling that life is meaningless and hopeless without your loved one

According to Dr. Shear, "Grief is the form that love takes after someone you love dies." In an article by the Chicago Tribune, Shear goes on to say, "The point isn't to put these feelings behind you altogether; that's not possible or even desirable. The point is to gain perspective and help grief find its rightful place in a person's life."

As a medical professional, I have been impressed with the work that Dr. Katherine Shear of Columbia University in New York City has done studying and treating complicated grief. She has developed a therapy for complicated grief that is twice as effective than traditional depression therapy.

I didn't know about her treatments when I was going through my complicated grief, but if I had, I might not have lost ten years of my life living in misery. I encourage you to look into her therapies If you believe you may have complicated grief, you don't have to continue living with the unrelenting pain you are experiencing. If there is not a therapist that provides complicated grief treatment in your area, I encourage you to take information from the Center for Complicated Grief to your family physician and ask for help finding someone who can potentially provide the therapy.

"My final message to all grievers: We are all in this together, and, there is no time limit to grief."

All of our lives will be forever changed. We each have our own individual way of grieving and path to walk, learning how to live with our grief. However, it is important to remember that there are specific signs when something has gone wrong and a griever is going into complicated grief, and time is of the essence for intervention.

If you are struggling with complicated grief. You do not have to live with such long term, debilitating pain. There is a way back to healthy grief. Loss and love can walk side by side into the future that is patiently waiting for you.

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at

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