What is Complicated Grief Disorder and Why Do We Experience It?
When we experience a traumatic event, be it a death of a loved one, witnessing a horrifying event, losing a job or our home, going through a divorce, or any kind of abuse, we inevitably develop coping mechanisms (these can also be viewed as our attempts to heal) to deal with what we have gone through. One of these mechanisms is grief, which is associated with sadness, regret, longing, isolation, emotional outpouring, depression, anxiety, numbness, and a sense of meaninglessness. The approaches we use to process and integrate trauma can often help us to eventually move on with our lives and continue living in relative peace.
However, sometimes we get stuck in this cycle of coping mechanisms, and the effect of a traumatic event can be so debilitating, that it prevents us from taking care of ourselves, keeping a job, maintaining relationships, doing everyday things such as grocery shopping or cleaning our home, or even wanting to engage with life altogether. When these symptoms continue for a long time and there is no improvement and maybe even worsening in how we feel, we could be suffering from a complicated grief disorder. This state can often feel hopeless and there could be a sense that no change could be made in a positive direction. Fortunately, there are many ways that people experiencing complicated grief can receive help and guidance on their healing journey.
Complicated Grief Symptoms
Sometimes the first step on our healing journey is recognizing what we are going through and acknowledging that we are experiencing grief that is tormenting us and making our life difficult. Below are some of the common symptoms of complicated grief that can help us recognize where we stand with grief in our life.
Intense Emotional Distress
Our emotions can be very positive motivators that help us live a full life, but if we become stuck in a cycle of negative emotions, we can find ourselves spiraling deeper and deeper into distress and hopelessness. Mild symptoms of grief can manifest as uncontrollable bouts of anger, deep sadness, crippling anxiety, and debilitating depression. When we are in these emotions, it seems like we can’t move forward because the past has such a strong emotional pull on us. We may even feel bitter about our situation and angry at ourselves that we feel stuck and regretful that the traumatic event even occurred.
Problems with Relationships
There are many reasons why our relationships could suffer when we are experiencing grief. We may be fearful that interactions with people could trigger us or remind us of our past trauma. We could be feeling unwell and so low in energy that social situations start to seem overbearing and unnecessary. Isolating ourselves and avoiding social situations could also stem from our belief that we cannot trust life to be safe and therefore cannot trust others to have good intentions. The world in general may not feel like a friendly place. On the other hand, we could experience a deep attachment to other people, unconsciously wanting comfort and understanding from anyone at all costs. This could lead us to form codependent or toxic relationships with others who may take advantage of our vulnerability. Our desperate attachment can even turn our friends away and prevent us from forming new, healthy relationships.
Problems with Normal Routine
When we cease to have enough energy or will to engage with life, we can even forgo many of the daily things we do to live a balanced life. For example, we could forget to eat, take care of our body, wash our clothes, pay bills, go outside of the house, and do things that in the past brought us joy. Our social, work, family life, and our health could consequently suffer tremendously.
Difficulty Enjoying Life
A prolonged grieving process can leave us with little incentive and time to focus on things not associated with the past traumatic event. We may feel that life is meaningless and there is no point in doing things that used to make us happy and excited about living life. Feelings of guilt if we try to do fun things can also prevent us from enjoying them.
Feeling Responsible for Past Traumatic Event
Another aspect of grief is constantly recalling what happened to us and how we could have avoided it. We can blame ourselves for attracting the traumatic event or not doing enough to prevent it from happening, wanting desperately to turn back time and change what happened. All these complex feelings could leave us stuck in the trauma of the event, continuing the cycle of sadness, guilt, shame, and anger.
Numbness and Detachment
If our feelings get so painful and our grief so unbearable, our subconscious mind could try to protect us by causing us to completely detach from life and any negative (or positive) feelings it might inspire. We could experience a sense of dullness in our emotions and no motivation or interest in our present or future life. Numbing is a coping strategy that can help us survive very difficult situations for a short period of time, but it can also lead to complete disinterest in life itself, causing more problems than it was supposed to prevent.
Focused Almost Exclusively on Past Traumatic Event
Some of us deal with grief by focusing on the traumatic event so intensely that anything else that occurs in life takes a back seat. But this focus keeps us stuck in the past where negative emotions and grief are a permanent fixture, making it very difficult to overcome grief and move on.
Prolonged emotional suffering and stress can turn into physical symptoms such as weakness, anxiety, panic attacks (this is the body’s way to let go of stress and heal), headaches, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal issues, brain fog, and many others. Because our nervous system and our adrenals are greatly affected by stress, we tend to produce suboptimal levels of neurotransmitters, which are essential for optimal organ function. A weakened nervous system and underperforming organs inevitably impact our physical health and how well we can function in the world.
When emotional and even physical pain becomes too high of a burden, we are more likely to turn to substances that can relieve our suffering. This is also an escape mechanism that helps us survive in the short term but can have grave consequences in the long term. Since substances such as alcohol and smoking can become physically addictive, we can also experience additional physical health problems.
Symptoms Lasting for More than Six Months
Perhaps the greatest concern with experiencing grief is that we would continue to be stuck in grief, unable to move through the grieving process into acceptance and normal life. To get back to normal life doesn’t necessarily mean that all of our emotions associated with the traumatic event disappear in six months but, eventually, debilitating symptoms have to fade away for us to live a full life once again.
In the case of complicated grief disorder, we are still in the worst throws of our grieving process six months or longer after trauma and there is no relief in sight. Once we can observe the reality of our situation, we can make steps – hopefully with the help of others – to change the course of our life.
Ways to Heal Complicated Grief Disorder
One of the most important steps to take on our healing journey is to talk to others about the events of our trauma. Externalizing our story is a powerful way to “purge” a lot of the burden that our story carries. We can start writing or creating art about our experiences and sharing them with others, or we can talk to someone we trust (this could be a family member, a significant other, or a counselor). Another powerful way to overcome the hold that grief has over us is to join a group therapy program. At these meetings, you can get to know many other people that are going through the same challenges in life. By telling your story to a group of people and listening to and empathizing with the stories of others, you can significantly lift the load your story carries. Often, group therapy is a great way to build a community where everyone is supporting each other with overcoming grief and complications that come with it.
While you are supported by people who are invested in your well-being, you can also start incorporating many natural healing methods that will help you heal physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. You can start with improving your diet for the benefit of your nervous system and the general health of your body by using naturopathy and herbalism as your guides. Energy healing and other methods associated with it can work on your body to remove stuck energetic memories of the trauma and the resulting grief. Reiki, yoga, meditation, tai chi, chi gong, sound healing, acupuncture, and reflexology, are just some of the few holistic practices that can be very effective for healing complicated grief.
Moving the body in some way through dance, sports, swimming, hatha yoga, biking – the possibilities are endless – can also be very therapeutic, oxygenating and nourishing the cells and helping vital energy flow through the body freely. When we spend time in nature – walking, gardening, camping, hiking – our body can feel revitalized and energized, yet grounded and calm. Committing to any kind of spiritual practice that we like is also an excellent way to improve our mood and our outlook on life. Even the smallest steps we can take to work on our well-being will help us immensely in addressing and healing our complicated grief.
Are you ready to find ways to overcome your anxiety, grief, or trauma? Reach out to one of our culturally-sensitive trained coaches and counselors who you can relate to, and who can recommend effective, alternative solutions for your specific needs!