numerous women showing different facial expressions of grief

There’s no “right” way to grieve, and each person manages grief differently. In this Health article, Mindpath Health’s Leela Magavi, MD, discusses complicated grief and how it can disrupt our ability to function.

It’s fair to say that grief is a complicated state in all its forms. People deal with it in different ways, and there’s no “right” way to grieve. One type of grief is actually called “complicated grief,” and it’s primarily seen in people who enjoyed a very rewarding and loving relationship with the deceased.

For these people, working through the sadness and loss may be even more difficult than grieving over someone they were not as close to, says Mayra Mendez, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist.

Complicated grief vs. common grief: how to tell the difference

When someone experiences complicated grief, thoughts of the lost loved one are overwhelming.

Mendez stresses that grief has no “normal” timeline. However, there is a natural process of working through the grief. As part of this process, the grieving person becomes less likely to react emotionally to reminders of their lost loved one, and sadness is gradually replaced by fond memories.

Complicated grief interferes with the positive coping processes that are part of normal grief, which can affect a person’s day-to-day functioning and their ability to care for themselves, Leela R. Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist and regional medical director for Mindpath Health.

“Normal or common grief can be illustrated by a working woman taking care of her children and finishing her work for the day, but simultaneously grieving under the ‘normal’ exterior and day-to-day activities,” Dr. Magavi says. “On the other hand, complicated grief may lead to withdrawal from social interactions and lack of interest in once loved activities, including exercise and wellness.”

Are some people more prone to complicated grief?

If you have a history of depression, you may be more likely to experience longer-term grief when you have to cope with loss, Mendez says. Grief is frequently a trigger for a bout of major depression.

People who struggle with trauma are also vulnerable to experiencing complicated grief.

Other people who may develop complicated grief are those who have lost loved ones to suicide, experience multiple losses, or had a problematic relationship with the person who died, Dr. Magavi adds.

Signs of complicated grief

Someone experiencing complicated grief may engage in avoidant behavior, use alcohol or substances to numb their pain, or show little interest in spending time with family members and friends.

Some people may experience psychotic symptoms (such as hearing voices) or experience suicidal thoughts due to the severity of their depressive or anxiety symptoms, Dr. Magavi says.

Other signs of complicated grief include anxiety about the meaning of the loss, fear that the pain will continue indefinitely, worry that happiness is lost and will never be realized, feeling cheated, blaming others for the loss, and feeling anger toward the person who died.

Dealing with complicated grief

The best way to deal with complicated grief depends on each individual’s circumstances, and it may be best to work it out with the help of a therapist or psychiatrist.

Dr. Magavi recommends scheduling your days in advance to keep yourself busy and divert your attention from your pain in a healthy way. “Composing a gratitude list could also prove beneficial,” she says.

While spending time with other loved ones can provide comfort and support, it’s also important to pinpoint your own emotions and thoughts in the midst of collective grief. Sometimes you need time alone to process your own emotional response, voice, and needs in order to reduce stress and gain clarity, Dr. Magavi says. If you’re an empath, you’ll naturally absorb other people’s emotions—which could lead to an emotional breakdown during a tumultuous time.

Small, daily efforts can make a big difference in your journey out of complicated grief. Dr. Magavi advises all her patients to simply name their feelings out loud, then describe what they are feeling, both emotionally and throughout their body.

It’s also important to own your grief, Dr. Magavi advises. That means resisting the temptation to alter your grieving process to match other people’s (or society’s) expectations.

Whatever you do, remember the things that are always true about grief. It’s a normal response to loss. Also, grief is not a permanent state—even if it takes longer to process.

Read the full Health article with sources.

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