We humans are social animals. We survive and thrive on the relationships we build with family, friends, and loved ones. From the most distant of acquaintances to the most intimate of loved ones, our connections with other people are central to the quality of our lives. This ability to connect with others is so essential that we identify those unable to establish relationships as mentally ill or in need of treatment. The joys of friendship, love, intimacy are vital parts of a meaningful life. Simply, grief is the emotion which occurs when we lose something we love. Many people grieve the loss of a pet, or a marriage or relationship, or more deeply, the loss of a younger self. The destructive power of grief is strong, and while most people move through the “normal” stages of grief and can come to acceptance, some 10% to 20% of grieving people experience symptoms which get worse rather than better over time. Unlike “simple grief” which resolves with time, “complicated grief” grows worse and can become a disorder requiring professional intervention.
“Complicated grief ” is different from simple grief in that at the point when most people are moving forward and regaining their normal lives, people with this pattern are suffering chronic and worsening symptoms. Dr. Kubler-Ross described the grieving as a sequence of reactions. In the normal grieving process people move through these and resolve each step. In complicated grief people lock into one stage or another and fail to resolve and move on.
- Feelings that life is valueless
- Inability to complete normal daily routines
- Inability to find enjoyment in life
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Inability to trust others
Researchers have found that there appears to be a neurological base for this inability to move through the grieving process. People with this syndrome experience grief at the pleasure center of the brain which reinforces its continuation. Simply, for these people, preoccupation with the loss provides subconscious pleasure to keep them locked in a state of grief. Time, the great healer for most people, is not a cure for people stuck in the process in this way. A return to a healthy mental state requires professional intervention.
Complicated grief often responds to cognitive behavioral therapy to assist people to examine the memories and thoughts that are subconsciously positive even as they are disruptive of healthy living. Exploring the subconscious process, and replacing self-destructive thoughts with rational health ones reconnects the person with the pleasures and rewards of daily life.
Recognizing complicated grief is not easy since its symptoms look much like normal grieving. Careful observation may reveal the withdrawal, depression, disruption of daily life that are indicators. These behaviors may be accompanied with issues of substance abuse, anxiety or stress disorder. A referral to professional intervention may be a vital support in helping someone reconnect with life.