What is ‘Complicated Grief Disorder’?


For World Mental Health Day, we discuss one of the less well-know forms of grief – Complicated Grief Disorder. Covering the signs and possible treatments.

Read Time: 5 Mins

On Saturday October the 10th, we celebrate World Mental Health Day. According to the World Federation for Mental Health, one in four people experience some form of mental health disorder during their lives, and in 2020 over 80% of people living with a mental health illness say that COVID has negatively affected their mental health. 

Now more than ever, the public has become aware of mental health disorders and possible treatments. But there’s still a huge statistical difference between those who can afford to seek help and those who can’t due to differences in income. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 85% of persons in low to middle-income countries have no access to treatment. Whereas 50% of people in high-income countries do have access. This large difference between those who can access treatment and those who can’t is one of the many reasons the LiveOn Community is dedicated to providing advice and support to those in need while grieving. Though we are not a replacement for health care, we can act as a stepping stone towards improved mental health through online support and advice blogs. We aim to remove much of the ambiguity and unknown topics surrounding grief and loss, which aren’t commonly discussed in society. #endthegriefstigma

This year for World Mental Health Day we are discussing the lesser-known topic of Complicated Grief Disorder.

For most people who are grieving, they experience an emotional heaviness throughout their grieving journey. After some time and with support, the grieving person adapts to their changed life and acceptance becomes more apparent. The person grieving hasn’t moved on, instead, they have moved forward with their loved one still being a key part of their lives. There is no all-encompassing timeline in which grief follows but we can roughly understand how, at each stage in the grieving journey, the person feels and will behave. 

“Although [some] days can feel overwhelming, over a period of time, people gradually learn to cope and bounce back” – Cruse

Complicated Grief 

Complicated or prolonged grief disorder occurs when a person finds extreme difficulty in progressing through their grief journey. Prolonged severe emotional reactions to the grief persist and include anger, emotional numbness and a sense of meaningless. 

Roughly, 10 – 20% of people experiencing grief will also experience complicated grief disorder, with 43% of people who lose a loved one to suicide having complicated grief reactions. 

Where grief becomes complicated grief is in the inability to ‘bounce back’ leading to a person feeling emotionally stuck in their grieving process. 

Where grief becomes complicated people feel unable to bounce back. 

There are additional factors that can increase a person’s likelihood of developing a complicated grief disorder, such as pre-existing mental health issues for example anxiety and depression and substance abuse, which should all be considered when discussing the likelihood of experiencing complicated grief. But if you are concerned about yourself or someone you know developing complicated grief disorder here are some of the symptoms, outlined by Bridges to Recovery:

  • Obsession with the departed person expressed through speech and behaviour
  • Deep, unbearable sadness that never seems to lift
  • Pessimistic expressions of doom, gloom, and despair about life in general
  • Irritability and a hair-trigger temper that makes the person difficult to communicate with
  • Sleeping problems (insomnia, or sleeping at odd hours)
  • Lack of attention to grooming and personal appearance
  • Refusing to leave the home
  • Persistent anger and bitterness toward the world
  • Withdrawal from social interactions and activities the individual used to enjoy
  • Denial and defensiveness when asked about the grief
  • Distracted performance on the job, or an inability to engage with or take interest in others
  • Worsening of any preexisting mental health conditions (depression, PTSD, anxiety disorder, substance abuse, etc.)
  • Strong attachment to mementoes and reminders of the departed person or, conversely, a strong aversion to those reminders
  • Inability to manage daily affairs in a wide range of contexts (work, school, financial, parental, etc.)
  • Behaviour that seems reckless, impulsive, or potentially self-destructive
  • Talk of suicide, or actual suicide attempts

Research has shown that complicated grief symptoms are more identifiable 6 months after the loss has occurred, however, it’s important to keep in mind that everyone’s grief journey is different. 

women talking together

Complicated Grief Treatment

There are many different options available to someone experiencing complicated grief disorder with each individual person responding differently to a specific treatment. 

The most well-known treatment is called complicated grief therapy. Using similar techniques to the ones used for depression but refined to tackle complicated grief, this type of therapy focuses on understanding and emotional exploration. 

At a pace which suits the person, a therapist will walk through the grieving process, discussing emotional reactions and offering personalised coping methods. 

Complicated grief therapy sessions can be done in groups or individual sessions, depending on what makes the person experiencing the grief feel the most comfortable. 

For people experiencing complicated grief, it’s important to highlight that therapy and grieving are personal journeys. You are not expected to ‘be all better’ suddenly or process through your journey before you feel ready to. There is no shame in grief or complicated grief disorder and there are always more help options out there for anyone struggling.

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Visit our Helpful Websites page for links to helplines and other centres. There’s no shame in asking for help.


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3 thoughts on “What is ‘Complicated Grief Disorder’?

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