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What is Complicated Grief and Do I Have It?


Death touches everyone. I can’t think of a single person in my life that hasn’t experienced a loss of a loved one (parent, sibling, other family member, spouse, or a pet). As Haruki Marukami quotes “Death is not the opposite of life but a part of life.”

Grief is the internal experience of a loss. Grief is not orderly or predictable. The griever is left with unrealized hopes, dreams and expectations for the future.  Good grief gets resolved. Sometimes, however, this normal grief strays off course. The bereaved person doesn’t reach reconciliation, and instead the grief becomes abnormally intensified or prolonged.

Unresolved/complicated grief happens because the griever is often left with things they wish had happened differently or happened better. It's said that approximately 7% of bereaved people will experience complicated grief, which is the persistent presence of intense symptoms of grief longer than usual. Along with physical symptoms, these people often can't focus on anything else, feel unresolved anger or sadness, and are still struggling to accept the reality of the loss. 

Complicated grief is becoming more pervasive in our society. There are many factors that cause complicated grief such as an unexpected death. Some people feel responsible for the death, others have personality traits that might impact (unresolved feelings/conflicts, depression, difficulties in managing and expressing feelings). Extreme dependence on the deceased person, or even elevated alcohol or drug use can also cause complicated grief..

So, what are some signs/behaviour patterns of complicated grief that us death doulas are observing? Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., author and expert in this area suggests these.

1.     Postponing grief in the hopes that it will go away. Reality check- it won’t, and instead it will become self-destructive.

2.     Displacing your grief by “projecting the unhappiness that is inside of you onto the outside world.” (Source 1, page 138)

3.     Replacing your grief by reinvesting the emotions prematurely into another relationship.

4.     Minimizing your grief through a variety of rationalizations.

5.     Somaticizing your grief by attempting to convert your feelings of grief into physical symptoms.

Grieving is a normal process and there are stages that one goes through. More serious symptoms can develop when the mourner “gets stuck” in one of the stages and thus the grieving process lasts for a longer time. These stages include Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression/Anxiety and then Acceptance.


These symptoms which are typical of complicated grief can include:

  • a powerful pain when you think of your lost loved one

  • a heightened focus on reminders of your lost loved one

  • an overall feeling of numbness

  • a feeling of bitterness when you think about your loss

  • a loss of purpose or motivation

  • a loss of trust in friends, family, and acquaintances

  • an inability to enjoy life

In conclusion, we strongly suggest that mourners seek professional grief counseling when struggling with complicated grief. A qualified professional can help you understand the grief process and give you the tools you need to cope with your emotions.

Suggested reading

•        Saying Goodbye a guide to coping with a loved one’s terminal illness by Barbara Okun and Joseph Nowinski

•        It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok by Megan Devine


•        Understanding Grief Helping Yourself Heal by Alan D. Wolfelt

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