Complicated Grief, Philosophy, and Me

If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would be writing about complicated grief, I wouldn’t have believed them.  My life was perfect.profile pic

Don’t get me wrong, it hadn’t always been perfect. I had been through my share of struggles as a single parent of three children, one of whom had a chronic illness — but, despite these challenges, I eventually found my own little piece of heaven on earth.

I fell in love, remarried and was blissfully happy. My husband and I added a beautiful daughter to our family. My children, ages 2 to 17, were happy and thriving. I was a pediatric nurse and found joy in volunteering in my community.

I was in love, fulfilled, and content.

But, a lot can change in 10 years.

2006 is the year I lost my husband in an airplane accident, five days after our daughter’s second birthday.

2008 is the year my son died from kidney failure, after two failed kidney transplants.

I also personally dealt with three life threatening medical illnesses over the last decade.

Life wasn’t such a breeze any more.

In fact, it felt like I was carrying a thousand pounds of weight on my shoulders. The loss of my husband and son, and then the loss of my health, pulled me into a prolonged grief that dragged me through almost a decade of suffering. I was told during the eighth year of my struggle that I had something called complicated grief.

Complicated grief occurs when the mourner gets stuck in the acute stages of grief, beyond six months after the death of their loved one. It is estimated that around 10% of grievers will develop complicated grief. Complicated grief can occur for many reasons – multiple losses, the loss of a spouse or child,  a traumatic death- are just a few of many circumstances that can put the mourner at high risk for complicated grief.

When in complicated grief the mourner may feel the same sharp pain and intense yearning that they experienced right after their loved one’s death, years, sometimes decades, later. The person in complicated grief has a difficult time moving forward and finding a sense of meaning to life without their loved one.

When I was diagnosed with complicated grief there was not a lot of information available on effective treatments in the Midwest, where I live. I encourage anyone who has been told, or believe that they may have complicated grief to look into the research and treatments developed by Dr. M. Katherine Shear, at the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University in New York. You can also check out their website at

My eventual healing came through a search for philosophical and spiritual answers into the greater meaning of life and death. What I came to realize is that when life is going according to the status quo, very few people take the time to stop and examine their lives. When I was confronted with the death of people I loved, and my own mortality, there was nothing for me to do other than explore the meaning of life and death, and, the purpose, if there was any, of suffering.

Crisis and loss will make you ask questions that may have never occurred to you before. Questions that philosophers, scholars, theologians and scientists have asked for millennia; each respective field uncovering different perspectives of thought on the greater meaning of life and death, the universe, and God. I spent years researching these subjects to try to uncover answers to some of my questions:

  • What did my husband and son experience as they died?
  • Where do our spirits/souls go after death? What do they experience there?
  • Does fate determine when our time of death is? Or, can we die at undetermined times based on accidents or illness?
  • How do other cultures view death?
  • Why is death such a taboo subject in our Western society?
  • If we have souls that are immortal, why do we have bodies that are imperfect and destructible?
  • Why does God allow terrible things to happen?

Through this quest for answers, I also stumbled upon my own personal spiritual path, which ultimately helped to lead me to the other side of complicated grief.

My hope is that by sharing my experiences through the obstacle course of complicated grief, showing how I eventually came out on the other side, I can possibly help relieve the suffering of someone else who may be going through the same.

If you are going through complicated grief, you are not alone. You, too, can get through the pain. It is not easy, but you can get to the other side. What awaits you is peace of mind and the ability to enjoy life again. It is worth the difficult journey.

Don’t stay stuck.

You can find your way out of complicated grief.

-Rhonda O’Neill

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