Grief is a complex concept, both emotionally and academically. But when psychologists talk about complex or complicated grief, what they mean is that the expected emotional process following a loved one’s death, that we have labelled as grief, goes on for a period that is considered longer than normal. Usually, this is taken as 6 months after the loss. Its effects can become debilitating for some and the person can’t move forward. Some other reasons for clinically complicated bereavement, might include the suddenness of the death or the circumstances surrounding it that were experienced as traumatic.
Another way of thinking about this, is that the person gets ‘stuck’ in their grief. The Collins English Dictionary states ‘If something is stuck at a particular level or stage, it is not progressing or changing’. I’m sure many of you will relate to this feeling in your life at one stage or another, whether its related to grief or not. Feeling unable to change things that we know are unhelpful to us is common.
I’ve written before in my blogs about how grief and loss is a universal concept that doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to a death to be experienced. Circumstances might have arisen in your life where loss is present in relationships through separation or divorce, estrangement from a family member or the loss of a friendship. I often see people struggling with loss when their mental health is suffering and they no longer recognise the person looking back at them in the mirror. This loss of identity can be paralysing with respect to making meaningful change.
Having experienced the sudden death of my husband in 2018, just a few short months after the death of my much-loved grandmother, I know first-hand how complicated loss can be. The loss of my 37-year-old husband was out of the natural order of things and happened without warning. This is complicated by the very nature of it and by his youth. The death of my elderly grandmother was anticipated. She was a giant in our family life. A true matriarch. Thinking about those two losses, you might be tempted to compare them and speculate that one must have been worse than the other. The truth is, like all of life’s experiences, they were just different. My grandmother’s death was in many respects less complicated, though nonetheless painful and difficult.
Whatever your loss, whether through death or circumstance, I’ve found that comparison is usually unhelpful. Your loss is yours. Other people’s loss is theirs. And that follows, even if the loss is about the same person. The reality is, that death and grief is complicated whatever the circumstances.
It is complicated when it is sudden. Because of the shock of it.
It is complicated when it is unanticipated. Because we struggle to come to terms with the fragility of life.
It is complicated when it is expected. Because it is always too soon.
It is complicated when we loved the person. Because love can be complicated.
It is complicated when we were unsure of our feelings for them. Because feelings are complicated.
If you are feeling stuck or are struggling, whatever the cause, it is important that you understand the complexity of it. It is not easy to move on from things which have shaped our lives in ways which perhaps we felt we had no control over.
However, the next time you look in the mirror, try to truly see yourself. Stop comparing yourself unfavourably to others. Your life is yours. Other people’s life is theirs. Leave them to it. Take active ownership, try to identify where you are feeling stuck and how to change it for the better.
Just like death, your one precious life is complicated. And that’s ok too.