Talking about Complex Grief
For most people complex grief is an unknown or misunderstood form of grieving. Although it’s generally referred so as “Complex Grief” or “Persistent Complex Grief”, I like to describe it as “Complicated Grief” as I feel this explains better what’s it is. Yes, it is grief, but it is grief with additional complications.
Grief on its own is bad enough, but when the grief is for the loss of a vulnerable loved one who depended on you to ensure they were loved, safe, healthy and happy in this world, then it’s almost inevitable that this will lead to complicated grief. If you’re dealing with someone deliberately taking your loved one’s life, or they were unequivocally instrumental in their death, that too may lead to complicated grief. Why? Because then you are dealing with a whole raft of emotions and situations on top of the grief you feel.
Additional grief complications can be very varied – but here are a few that are common and which you might recognise:
- You are also suffering because you feel a decision you made, or did not make, led in some way to their death
- You are suffering as you feel that somehow you should have done more to stop whatever happened, from happening
- You are caught up in a long legal battle, dragging on for years, during which time you are regularly forced to re-live what happened as evidence
- You find yourself and the death of your loved one featured in the media, often without warning that it is going to be featuring that day
- You are running (often single-handed) long weary years of a campaign for the people responsible for the death to be held accountable and punished
- You are running (often single-handed) long weary years of campaigning to make the public care about what happened and keep the death of your loved one in the public eye
- After long years of fighting for an investigation into the death of your loved one, the investigation they run is badly mismanaged and feels like no more than a cover up at best
- You keep seeing the same awful thing which happened to your loved one, happening again and again to others, seemingly without change, blame or accountability
- You are suffering from a lack of acknowledgement of the value of your loved one and so lack of acknowledgement that it really mattered that they died
- You have overwhelming feelings of loss and isolation owing to lack of peer support and opportunity to talk about your loss with empathic people
As you read through this list you might get to one point and think “yes, that’s me”, but my guess is that if you do have complicated grief, then you will probably identify with at least 5 from the list and maybe even all of them and you will probably be able to add a few more from your own personal list.
Complicated grief is basically what it says on the tin. It is grief, with all that brings for you to deal with and then on top of that you also have the anguish of having to go through a lot of other exhausting emotional (and physical) experiences, none of which life has prepared you for. Often you will be going through them alone, or you may feel alone because the people around you are just unable to give you what you need at that time, and you’re unable to ask for it.
If you take each separate complication- if you use just the ones from the list I’ve written in this blog, each of them alone is pretty overwhelming. Now imagine that you have all of them happening at the same time as your terrible grief.
Grief, guilt, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of making any decision, exposure, fragility, lack of experience, lack of confidence, lack of money, lack of friends, exhaustion (physical), exhaustion (emotional and mental), lack of sleep, lack of energy, loss, isolation, compelling need to continue, dread to continue, dread to fail, dread to succeed, lack of empathy, lack of support, regret for what you didn’t do, despair for what you couldn’t achieve, despair that what you achieve will make no change, despair that no matter what you do/don’t do, your loved one won’t return, needing them desperately, feeling adrift in a sea of sorrow and doubt, grief.
If any of this is familiar to you, you may have complicated grief. You may be struggling to sleep. You may be struggling to eat or just look after yourself. You may be struggling to just get through a day in the “normal world” where the problems of people around you seem vacuous and meaningless. You may be experiencing isolation, depression, numbness, a sense of detachment from reality and inability to grieve normally (whatever that is). You may find yourself constantly thinking about the death of your loved one – to the point where you struggle to remember their life and everything is about their death. You may even be thinking that it would be better if you could be together with them again. It is terrible and terribly hard.
You are absolutely not alone. There are many, many people who are and who have been through complicated grief and what you are experiencing now. Remember that this is normal considering what you have been/ are going through. Take a step back and try to look at what has happened to you from the outside looking in.
If you made a list of everything you’ve experienced since your loved one’s death my guess is that it would be long. Look at that list and then ask yourself, how could you be feeling any different? Not only are you dealing with the huge number of things that your previous life and experiences did not prepare you for, but for many of you, this awful trauma goes on for a really long time (the average length of time it takes to get through an inquest, investigation etc is 7 years, but it’s very often closer to 12 years). That is a very, very long time indeed to be stuck in this awfulness. No wonder your grief is complicated by everything you are going through.
One of the common themes of complicated grief is the feeling that no one and nothing can help you. You feel no-one else understands. But that is just not true.
There are people who understand because they have been through it and come out the other side, or because they have had specific training to help with this. BUT (and that’s a big but on purpose) if you want professional counselling make sure you tell them you have “complex grief” or “grief with complications”. If they don’t seem to understand what you’re talking about then they are not the right counsellor for you. It is very important that you see professionals who have previous knowledge and experience of helping people with complicated grief. If you accept counselling from someone who has never dealt with this before or is using you to further their own knowledge and experience, they could do more harm than good.
If you don’t feel ready for professional help, then you may find speaking to the helplines at grief charities helpful. All are staffed by family members who have lost loved ones and often in traumatic circumstances, so they may easily also have had complicated grief. Sometimes you can reach out on social media and find other people who are going through or have been through complicated grief, but I wouldn’t ever suggest using social media contact as a substitute for professional help. But most of all, remember that not only are you not alone in what you are experiencing – many, many other people have been there before you and really do understand what you are going through.
Can you ever get through complicated grief? Is there another place beyond it? Yes, definitely. How do I know? Because I had bad PTSD caused by complicated grief for years and now I am a lot better. I still need to be aware of triggers and I always have to take a little extra care of myself, but I know that I am now at the other side and I know it can be done. It’s not a quick fix thing. It’s definitely a long-haul kind of thing but along the way you learn so much about yourself, about grief, about love and about caring, that I can honestly say, looking back over the last 8 years, I think that I had to go through it and what I have learned, I feel will be something I value for the rest of my life.