About complicated grief | Cruse Bereavement Care

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What is complicated grief?
Why does grief become complicated?
How do I know whether I’m experiencing complicated grief?
What should I do if I feel this way?

What is complicated grief?

It’s normal that grief will place a strain on day to day living, and it will usually take a long time after a bereavement to start to adapt to life after loss. Even long after accepting loss, there may still be days that can leave the person who is grieving feeling like they had in those early days after the bereavement. Although these days can feel overwhelming, over a period of time, people gradually learn to cope and bounce back. 

Where grief becomes complicated people feel unable to bounce back. There is usually something about the experience that leaves the person who has been bereaved feeling stuck and in a struggle to cope with the emotional impact of their grieving. 

Most researchers agree that complicated grief might begin to be identifiable in a person’s grieving experience from around 6 months after a bereavement, but this isn’t a rule, as each experience of grief will be unique. 

You can find out more about complicated grief and research in this area here.

Why does grief become complicated?

There’s still a lot of research to be done in this area before we can be very sure of the reasons, but there are some issues that researchers agree can contribute to grief becoming complicated such as the circumstances of the loss, the relationship with the person who has died, other losses (particularly at an early age), and the personality of the individual who has experienced the loss. Existing mental health conditions can create extra challenges for people trying to cope with their grieving. 

What is clear is that it isn’t a choice. Complicated grief is a result of a combination of difficult circumstances.

How do I know whether I’m experiencing complicated grief?

It’s normal to lose routine after a bereavement. It’s often a shock in the beginning, and so people need time to adjust their thinking to the changes that need to happen to adapt both practically and emotionally.  Individuals need time to figure out what they need to do to cope. This can feel intense and overwhelming.

Where grief becomes complicated, the intense and overwhelming emotions that are common for most people in the early experience of grieving, may feel constant and for a long time. It may be difficult to figure out what to do to cope. As time goes on, the attempt to cope with these feelings can begin to have a permanently disruptive effect on normal day to day living, such as the ability to carry out daily tasks or communicate with those around us. In the long term this can contribute to ill health.

In some cases, as a way of coping, some people may gradually close off from their feelings. This can be a normal reaction to loss. Giving the self some time to retreat can be a healthy way to adjust to new feelings and changing circumstances, however where this means of coping is prolonged, it may lead an individual to withdraw from daily life, and possibly become isolated.

What should I do if I feel this way?

If any of this sounds familiar to you, it’s worth exploring with someone who might be able to help you begin looking at the way you have reacted to your loss. If you feel stuck, some extra support could help you to move forwards.  

You can talk with a volunteer at the Cruse Helpline. A bereavement support volunteer can also help you to consider additional options for support, such as face-to-face services or group work.

It can help to let your GP know how you’re feeling. If your GP knows that you’re finding it difficult to cope they might be able to take steps to help you gain more support.