Complicated grief

— Skylight Trust

​We are never ready for losing someone and it takes time to adjust, but sometimes we can find ourselves – or someone we know - feeling unable to move forward.

Losing a loved one is something that all of us will face at some point in our lives, but we are hardly prepared for this happening. While we live our lives and start aging, we slowly start adjusting to the idea of losing our parents, our siblings, our friends. Sometimes we dare to explore the idea of our children or their friends passing, usually when we are faced with illness or accidents. In any case, we know – we expect – the loss of someone we love, is going to be one of the greatest challenges we could face.

Our life changes completely as we go through this transition and we respond to this change in different ways. We feel waves of mixed feelings, which are so intense sometimes, that we can hardly manage them. But in a hidden part of ourselves, we know it will get more manageable in time – either by knowing someone else that went through a similar experience or because we are told so. You will adjust, it will get better in time.

Research shows that most people have the resilience to rebound and rebuild themselves after losing someone, adjusting to the change, and connecting with our loved one in a different way. How much time needs to pass for a person to start feeling balanced again, will vary from case to case.

What can we "expect" when we are grieving

The experience of grief is unique. No one will feel what you feel, the way you feel it. However, there are common responses that you may identify with in your grieving experience – in no specific order:

  • feelings of profound sadness
  • anger
  • you find yourself constantly thinking about your loved one
  • intrusive thoughts about the person’s death (especially if it was sudden, unexpected or violent)
  • changes in sleeping and eating habits: not sleeping or sleeping too much, the same with eating
  • unable to concentrate
  • looking for ways to connect with the person who passed: going to the cemetery, listening to their favourite song, reading their favourite book, etc.
  • loss of spiritual meaning or more connection to spirituality
  • feeling like you don’t want to connect with people
  • shock or difficulties to accept that the person has passed.

These are some of the most common reactions and you may go through all of them, some of them, or something different. Your experience is unique to you and you can expect these symptoms will slowly give way to a sense of “adjustment”. This doesn’t mean you have forgotten about the person who passed, but it means you are finding a way of living and connecting with your loved one in a different way.

Complicated Grief

Sometimes we can find ourselves – or someone we care about - feeling stuck and unable to move forward. We may feel like time has passed and these feelings are as strong as they were right after the loved person died, or even stronger. This may be more related to what is called, complicated grief.

Complicated grief occurs to many people and it is not uncommon, but it may require a more specialised support. It is more than just grieving, as it has shown to be more intense and it takes place in a period longer than what the person and their close circle would have expected. However, the most significant sign is how impaired the person feels in their daily life, including their work or social roles: it's debilitating and sometimes can even be life-threatening, as it is profoundly disruptive and persistent.

In general terms, we can think about complicated grief when a person feels:

  • an intense and compulsive search for a connection with the person who died – for example “if I don’t visit his grave every day, he will be mad at me ignoring other responsibilities to comply with this internal demand
  • profound distress for the loss: yearning and longing for the loved one
  • intrusive thoughts of the deceased, preoccupation about the person
  • permanent sense of emptiness and lack of meaning
  • impossibility of accepting the reality of the loss, even after time has passed and marked, for example, with the first Christmas or other important date
  • neglecting to engage with their lives without their loved one, not feeling capable of moving on
  • a sense of disconnection from other, even close relatives

Complicated grief tends to relate more with sudden deaths, or when the person shared a close or intimate relationship with the person who died - a family member, a close friend. It usually presents compounded with other conditions, such as depression, PTSD, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, and it can present with passive suicidal ideation or suicidal attemptsif you or someone you know is in this situation contact 111 immediately.

If you or someone you know is feeling some of these symptoms, or others that are persistently interfering with your/their daily routine, ask for professional help as soon as possible. A grief Counsellor is a trained and qualified person that will navigate with you the depths of the grief, working towards improving your quality of life and dealing with the issues that are causing the distress and pain. It is OK to ask for help, you don’t have to do it by yourself. You are not alone.

What can you do?

  • Find someone – anyone – you trust and share how you feel: don’t wait and contact a family member, a close friend, a Minister, a grief Counsellor.
  • Ask for help: you don’t have to know what to do or where to go. Contact Skylight on 0800 299 100 and someone will be able to point you in the right direction.

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Resources Available at Skylight

Skylight is here to help you through difficult times. We can assist you in a variety of ways with information appropriate for your situation. You are welcome to visit us and receive free information and a support pack from our resource centre and borrow books from the specialist library. We also facilitate Professional Development training and offer Counselling support services for children, young people, family/whānau and individuals who are experiencing tough times.

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