Loss and change are part of life on this Earth, and both can lead to grief. We can grieve any kind of loss – the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or home, a severed friendship, a child’s graduation, or even a change in season. Grief is healthy and necessary – when we don’t let ourselves feel sadness or anger, we can cause all kinds of physical and emotional complications. And grief doesn’t always go away, especially for a major loss. But with time, the grief softens, and it becomes easier to find happiness in daily life.
But even though grief is natural and everyone grieves differently, on a different timeline, sometimes grief gets stuck. The emotions (which can include sadness, anger, numbness, guilt, and more) become debilitating, lasting much longer than usual and affecting the person’s ability to function.
When this happens, clinicians call the condition complicated grief, or persistent complex bereavement disorder.
Let’s look at an example. Lydia’s father died of a heart attack three years ago at the age of 70, and Lydia’s mother, Joan, has still not recovered. Lydia still misses her father and even has times of intense sadness. However, most days she is able to enjoy her work, her family, and her hobbies, and she talks about her father with bittersweet nostalgia, remembering the good times they shared. Joan, on the other hand, continues to suffer intensely, almost every day. She has a hard time focusing on anything but her husband’s death, has stopped getting together with her friends or being involved in church activities, and sleeps much more than she used to, often neglecting to take care of herself or her home.
Instead of seeking help from a therapist, Joan has become very attached to Lydia, calling her three to four times a day, and talking about how sad she is, to the point that Lydia cannot concentrate for too long on any activity. Even though Lydia is ready to move forward and embrace life again, her mother’s grief is a constant weight.
Joan is suffering from complicated grief. As you can see, this level of grief affects not only Joan but also her loved ones. Lydia doesn’t want to abandon her mother, but she is not a therapist and cannot let Joan’s grief compromise her own mental health. What can Lydia do? How can Joan move past her grief?
Here at Eagle View Behavioral Health, we understand the power of grief, how it can take hold and not let go. To Lydia, we could recommend the following:
- Seek out therapy for yourself. You are not responsible for your mother’s grief, and a therapist can help you stay grounded and support Joan without enabling her grief or compromising your own well-being.
- If Joan starts to express thoughts about not wanting to live or about feeling like a burden to everyone, seek help immediately. Call 911 or 988, The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
- Ask Joan if she would be willing to come to our facility for free, confidential assessment. Our compassionate team will talk with her about her situation and determine a treatment plan.
To Joan, we would say the following:
- You are not alone. Many people have lost beloved partners and spouses. Many people have a very difficult time after the loss, and at least 7% of people who are grieving develop complicated grief. While it might feel right now like nothing could possibly help, treatment for your grief can be of tremendous benefit.
- Treatment for complicated grief is much like the treatment for depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Our treatment team would talk with you about your history of mental health, both before and after your husband’s death. With inpatient or outpatient therapy, we would help you pinpoint underlying causes that might be prolonging your grief, such as sleep problems, anxiety, or an undiagnosed mental health disorder.
- Depending on your needs, we may suggest medication such as an antidepressant to help restore the chemical balance to the brain that may have been thrown off by prolonged stress and sadness. Treatment would also connect you with others who have endured similar situations and who can offer support and encouragement.
Our goal in treatment is to help our clients, no matter what mental health issue they’re dealing with, develop the skills and access the tools they need to take care of themselves. As clients with complicated grief heal, they begin to see the joy in life again and gain the energy they need to do the things that will support their emotional wellness.
Don’t let prolonged grief keep you in the dark. Learning how to deal with your emotions will help you reconnect to the love you lost and the love you still have.