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Complicated Grief ~ When Grief Healing Is Halted

All grief is complicated. The shock, pain, sorrow and sadness are just overwhelming. We find ourselves questioning why and how things happened as they did. We steep in the "would have, could have, should have" thoughts and feel guilt for what we think could have done differently. Flooded by thoughts, feelings and emotions in a powerful, raw and uncensored way, we feel like things will never be the same, right or good, again.

Yet, for most of us, we manage with and through our grief. While we are initially stunned and wonder aloud "How am I ever going to get through this?", what we may not realize is we come equipped with a psychological immune system to help us successfully get through this pain.

The psychological immune system is a refined mechanism that has been with us since the beginning of time. Like our physical immune system, the psychological immune system is in place to protect our body and mind against stress. The psychological immune system protects against feelings of worthlessness, fear and pain in the face of negative experiences. With its help, and in time, we naturally integrate grief into our lives. We are fundamentally equipped to heal ourselves, both physically and emotionally.

But sometimes there are roadblocks to grief healing. We get stuck in the acute grief stage, living each day as if it were the first day of our grief, again and again. While approximately 90% of us are able to integrate grief into our lives, finding meaning and purpose again, up to 10% are unable to do this. Like our physical immune system, sometimes healing is blocked; our psychological immune system is compromised.

When the psychological immune system is compromised, we get stuck. We may blame ourselves for our loved one's death, avoid reminders of the death, judge our own grief or avoid places they loved to go. We may live in continuous anger, fear and pain and feel it's wrong to enjoy life, feeling guilty for living, when they have died. This endless loop of suffering is called complicated grief, or prolonged grief disorder, and is a real psychological state, where people can spend weeks, months and even years suffering. And there is treatment for it.

Prolonged grief disorder has been studied extensively by Dr. Katherine Shear and her team at the University of Columbia's Center for Complicated Grief and she is the pioneer of complicated grief therapy. This treatment, which is evidenced based with proven results, is being offered by many counselors, providing successful treatment for people stuck in the grieving process, blocked from healing.

Grief is complicated; it is so difficult for all of us, and for some, it is paralyzing. While most of us are able to navigate the process to a place of healing and integration, some will get caught and have difficulty with adaptation. Complicated grief therapy is a proven treatment for those suffering with complicated, or prolonged grief, offering help back to a place of healing.

Nola Metz Allan, MPA, M.Ed., LCMHCA

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