The expression of grief is one of the oldest and most universal experiences in life. Sometimes expressions of grief and mourning fit into a cultural or religious context. At other times, grief is a highly personal and individual experience. One of the disadvantages of dealing with grief on your own is that it can be difficult to tell when you or someone you love is experiencing complicated grief, which the Mayo Clinic refers to as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder.
Recognizing Complicated Grief
Grief can be difficult to gauge because there is no set timeline or standard for when and how it unfolds. This is compounded by the fact that, at least initially, normal grief and complicated grief look the same. The Mayo Clinic outlines the trademark phases of normal grief. Full acknowledgement of a loss is often delayed, especially if a loved one dies unexpectedly, or if you lose someone you did not interact with on a daily basis (such as a friend or family member who lived far away). You should also expect that grief will be characterized by contradictory thoughts and emotions and may subside only to come back in full force during significant times like birthdays or anniversaries. What distinguishes complicated grief is that it does not subside at all; instead, it often grows worse as time passes. Rather than moving on from your loss, you become immersed in it and may be incapable of fulfilling responsibilities or maintaining relationships with friends and family members.
Risk Factors of Complicated Grief
Little is known about the causes of complicated grief —they can range from inherited genetic traits to environment, individual personality or any combination of various factors. While there is no exact means of determining if someone will struggle with complicated grief (or, if they do, what consequences it will have), there are risk factors that may increase susceptibility. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include the nature of the relationship with the deceased (especially if the bereaved was close to or dependent on them), the circumstances surrounding the death (such as unexpected or violent causes) and the presence of other exceptionally stressful factors in one’s life. The lack of a good support system, a history of depression or a traumatic childhood may also contribute to complicated grief. In addition to these potential consequences, complicated grief disrupts one’s ability to enjoy life, to be active in the lives of their friends and family, and to maintain a sense of purpose and meaning. Because of the nature of complicated grief, a person who is struggling with it may be unable to help themselves, or to even recognize that they need help.
Consequences of Complicated Grief
While the causes of complicated grief may not be completely understood, the many serious consequences of this condition are well-documented. They include: significant disturbances to sleep; increased risk of substance abuse; depression, anxiety and/or suicidal thoughts; inability to follow daily routines, maintain relationships or perform at work; increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Grief is inherently complex. The intensity, length and nature of grief depend on each person’s individual personality and the nature of the relationship with the deceased. However, grief recovery is characterized by a steady increase in the ability to re-establish your life and routine, to enjoy work and hobbies and to actively maintain relationships. If you or someone you love is finding it difficult to re-engage in the normal flow of life, complicated grief may be a factor. You should talk to someone you trust or to a medical professional.