Is there a Time Limit to Grief? The Difference between Complicated Grief and Normal Grief

Complicated grief dominated my life for a good part of the last ten years. Living with complicated grief leaves little hope for the future. I struggled to find an escape from the pain of my losses, and my pain became a type of prison for me, at times feeling like a life sentence. I felt as if I was stuck in my own hellish Groundhog Day, every day offering the same pain, a pain that overwhelmed all of my experiences. I could not find a way to move forward.

I am also a medical professional. I believe that my personal experience of complicated grief, combined with my experience in the medical field, has given me a unique perspective on the subject. I have become aware that there seems to be some confusion about the differences between grief and complicated grief. There is also some misunderstanding surrounding the mention of a time line for grief. My hope is to clear up some of the confusion for those of us who live within the world of grief.


Grief is a game changer in life; not only have we lost someone who was a vital part of our lives, we have lost the future that we so naively believed was going to unfold before us, just as planned. We are left with an uncertain, and ill-defined future, and no instructions as to how get to a place where there seems to be any future worth living.

The truth is, even when we are able find a way to move forward without our loved one, life will never be the same. We will never be the same. There will always be a void in our lives, whether one year, ten years or two decades after our loss.

This is the reality of grief.
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But, what happens when, no matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to create a new future for ourselves? We are stuck living in the past, where our lost loved one lives. That is the only place we can find comfort.

We avoid going places and doing things that remind us of them and our loss. We choose to remain home, yearning for our lost loved one, certain that we can somehow wish our past life into the present moment. We also tend to isolate ourselves from others, because there is no way they can possibly understand our pain. We cannot find a new identity without our loved one. We are stuck and unable to move forward. This is the unfortunate and painful reality of complicated grief.

This is not to suggest that the complicated griever’s loss is greater, or that the pain is stronger, than someone who is grieving normally. It does mean that something has gone wrong in the grieving process, and the griever can become crippled by their loss. These warning signs can be seen as soon as six months after the loss.

There has been concern about placing a time limit on grief because we are not honoring its natural process. I understand and agree. We will always grieve the loss of our loved one. But, it is important to recognize that for someone who is experiencing complicated grief, something has gone wrong, and time is of the essence in recognizing and treating a grief that has become disabling.

I believe the statement – “If you have been grieving for more than six months to a year, and you are still in the acute stages of grief, you may be experiencing complicated grief,”  – has been misinterpreted, and requires further clarification.

The statement is not meant to imply that everyone should be over their grief within a year.

The statement is meant to be used as a tool for recognizing complicated grief when it is happening, so that the complicated griever can be guided back onto the tracks of healthy grieving.

Early intervention in complicated grief is important.

 

I see this as a correctable miscommunication between the concepts of grief and complicated grief, between grievers themselves, and also between professionals and the population of grievers that they care for.


 

What you should know about Complicated Grief:

Around 7% of grievers will end up struggling with complicated grief. These grievers remain in the intense and acute stages of grief, and loss, for years, sometimes decades. Sometimes they never recover.

Here are some factors that are known to put a griever at increased risk for CG:

• Death of a child or spouse
• Lack of family or social support
• Issues around how they found out about the death
• History of anxiety or depression before the loss
• The death was violent or traumatic
• Long term marriage with a strong dependence on the lost spouse

Following are some of the symptoms that can indicate your grief has shifted into complicated grief if you are still experiencing them six months to a year after the death of your loved one:

• Persistent and invasive thoughts of your loss that disrupt daily activities
• Avoiding or feeling consumed by reminders/memories of your loved one
• Unable to accept the finality of the death
• Intense yearning for your lost loved one
• Feeling angry about the death
• Feeling numb or confused, developing a loss of trust in others
• Isolating from others
• Suffering physical symptoms similar to that experienced in the deceased’s final illness
• Feeling that life is meaningless and hopeless without your loved one

As a medical professional, I have been impressed with the work that Dr. Katherine Shear of Columbia University in New York City has done studying and treating complicated grief. She has developed a therapy that is 70% more effective than traditional grief therapy. I didn’t know about her treatments when I was going through my complicated grief, but if I had, I might not have lost ten years of my life living in misery. I encourage you to look into her therapies at The Center for Complicated Grief.  If you believe you may have complicated grief, you don’t have to continue living with the unrelenting pain you are experiencing. There is help.

My final message to all grievers: We are all in this together, and, there is no time limit to grief. All of our lives will be forever changed. We each have our own individual way of grieving and path to walk, learning how to live with our grief. However, it is important to remember that there are specific signs when something has gone wrong and a griever is going into complicated grief, and time is of the essence for intervention.

If you are struggling with complicated grief, you do not have to live with such long term, debilitating pain.

There is a way back to healthy grief.

Loss and love can walk side by side into the future that is patiently waiting for you.

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-Rhonda

3 thoughts on “Is there a Time Limit to Grief? The Difference between Complicated Grief and Normal Grief

  1. Red Gypsy Lauren

    Thank you so much for defining complicated grief. I know it well, as I inhabited that place for a year after my son’s death and my husband’s incarceration for his murder. After a sixteen-year marriage, I was left alone with four young daughters to raise and a burning intention to keep life light and hopeful for them, but that wasn’t enough for me. Despite clutching at spiritual practices, I needed to do something so radical that I would set myself free from the grieving prison of my own mind. So I entered into a marathon of love, where I offered myself as a surrogate. I gained a new purpose, a new set of best friends and a goal whose attainment drew me out of myself and pulled me back into the functional world of the living. The pregnancy, the tussles with officialdom, the travels and the knowledge that I was gifting something incredible in creating a family on the other side of the world was my self-care. It saved me.

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    1. Rhonda O'Neill

      Wow, Lauren. What a story. I agree that doing what we can to care for ourselves and reach out to help others is what ultimately will heal us. I’m so sorry about the tragic loss of your son. Thank you for sharing. Rhonda

      Like

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