Complicated Grief Around Death of a Loved One
In the wake of a death, people experience grief. They may feel sad, lonely, or low on energy. They may feel disconnected from others and think frequently about the person who has died. This can go on for months or even years, but as long as the intensity of their symptoms decreases over time, their experience is most likely healthy and normal. The trouble occurs when time alone does not heal; in some cases these acute symptoms morph into a persistent condition called complicated grief. People experiencing complicated grief get “stuck.” That is, they are unable to effectively move on with their lives.
In spite of affecting ten to twenty percent of people who experience a significant loss, complicated grief is a little known mental health condition. This is all the more surprising when its impact is understood: People who develop complicated grief tend to be debilitated by it. They may look severely depressed or traumatized. They may have difficulty connecting to others or keeping a job and are at greater risk for developing a substance use disorder.
Someone with complicated grief can benefit from psychotherapy. Also someone who appears high risk for developing complicated grief in the future can benefit from psychotherapy as a means of prevention, even before the death. Psychological risk factors for complicated grief include: already having a significant history of close people dying, a history of coping through suppression (i.e., trying to force stressful thoughts out of your mind rather than facing them), having a significant mental health history, or simply being very close to the person who died (e.g., the loving spouse). If you or someone you care about might be at risk for, or is already showing signs of complicated grief, speaking with a trained mental health provider could be of real help.
Dr. Adam Altschuh is a therapist in private practice in Denver, where he specializes in treating patients and caregivers dealing with the psychological impact of life-threatening illness. For more info, please call 720-515-9427 or visit www.healthpsychologydenver.com/grief