One of the hardest challenges we will all face is the loss of a loved one. The pain we feel is rooted in the love we had and continue to have based on our memories. Mourning the death of a loved one will affect each of us differently but it can have a tremendous impact on caregivers. Grief is a natural reaction that our minds and bodies go through. Many people think that grieving ends after the funeral, but grief includes the entire emotional process of coping with a loss and it can last a long time. A normal amount of grieving gives us the ability to let a loved one go and keep on living in a productive, healthy way. However, caring for someone with dementia, cancer, and other severe chronic conditions can cause what is called complicated grief (CG), which is synonymous with post-traumatic stress disorder.
What is Complicated Grief?
The Mayo Clinic summarizes complicated grief as, “painful emotions so long lasting and severe that you have trouble accepting the loss and resuming your own life.” Additional research adds the following characteristics to help you better understand what may initially appear as expected bereavement:
- A powerful sense of confusion
- Immense and unrelenting loneliness
- Sudden and severe panic attacks
- The loss of emotional connection
- Embarrassment or discomfort in expressing grief
- Strong and unshakable sense of destructive guilt
- Hostile behavior that is uncontrollable
- Seeking drugs, alcohol, or other ways to escape reality
- Inability to carry out daily tasks or take on responsibilities
- Suicidal thoughts or feelings of worthlessness
This condition is often mistaken for depression. However, complicated grief is different, as the feelings that those with CG experience don’t lessen over time. The death experienced creates a significant divergence of what has occurred from adapting to the new reality.
The Prevalence of Complicated Grief
Complicated grief is a real thing. It is being written about more frequently and Columbia University even has a program dedicated to studying its impact and ways to cope with it. In one article in Psychology Today, those experiencing CG will “interminably bounce back and forth through the stages of grief without resolution. Research findings show that their brains process grief differently from those who are able to resolve the loss of a loved one. The difference seems to be in the style of yearning their lost loved ones and in hopelessness for the future that prevents them from sufficiently working through the grieving process.”
It is expected that 20% of bereaved caregivers will experience severe depression and/or complicated grief as a result of the loss of their loved one. This is a significant percentage of our caregiving population, making this topic all the more important to be open about and raise awareness.
How to Treat Complicated Grief
Knowing about what CG is will help you identify symptoms and take steps to address what is a serious health risk for yourself. If you or a loved one is experiencing this serious condition you should immediately mobilize your support network by contacting your family and friends. Although it is a struggle you need to talk about your feelings and acknowledge the new reality of today by remembering your loved one and moving forward with your life.
We will all experience loss and need to prepare ourselves for what may come. Life does go on even in the most difficult of times. You should take this topic seriously and seek professional help and guidance as needed.