What is Complicated Grief Therapy?

Published on April 19, 2021

Grief is a normal response to mourning the loss of a significant attachment figure. However, some people experience complicated grief characterized by an intense, prolonged mourning period focused on unhelpful, painful thoughts, dysfunctional behaviors and difficulty regulating emotions. When someone struggles with complicated grief, unique therapeutic interventions are required to address it. Complicated Grief Therapy involves seven core themes, including understanding grief, managing painful emotions, thinking about the future, strengthening relationships, telling the story of the death, learning to live with reminders and remembering the person who died. Many people with complicated grief believe that they cannot be connected to their lost loved one without constant emotional pain. Overtime this can strain relationships, prevent an individual from honoring the memory of the deceased and prohibit the person from truly being connected to their loved one. It is possible to achieve meaningful relationships while still remaining connected to the deceased with the assistance of a Complicated Grief Therapist. Psychologist, J. William Worden named the four tasks of mourning which allow us to see how integrating loss into our lives does not erase their memories, but rather preserves our connections to them. 

1. Accepting the Loss

Sometimes grief can become complicated by unhelpful, often catastrophizing thoughts that cause some people to feel they are not grieving “the right way” if they come to terms with their loss. These thoughts cause people to have dysfunctional behaviors, such as avoiding places that remind them of their loved one or constantly day dreaming about their loved one. When we distract ourselves from painful emotions with avoidant behaviors, we inadvertently keep ourselves stuck in a place that prevents us from experiencing pleasant moments of connection to our lost loved one. A main concern for people with Complicated Grief is that they might forget or dishonor their relationship with the deceased if they accept the loss. However when we spend our time refusing to accept the loss, we actually reframe our relationship with the lost loved one around their death rather than the joy and connection shared with them when they were alive. 

2. Process the Pain and Grief of the Loss

Grief is a natural, emotional process that involves a balance between times of pain and sadness and times of respite where we are able set aside out grief for a time. Those with complicated grief have difficulty stepping out of their grief and inadvertently redefine who the deceased was as a perfect being. This means that we wind up moving away from the true identity of the deceased and our actual relationship with them. In an attempt to stay connected to this idealized person we hyper focus on reminders of them to feel close to them. Despite focusing on things that exacerbate their feelings of loss, we are unable to process our pain because we stay in a place where we are so overwhelmed by our grief that we are unable to cope or connect with our loved one. Allowing ourselves time and space to heal does not mean we have forgotten our loved one. In actuality permitting ourselves to process our pain will enhance our connection to the deceased by granting ourselves the ability to truly remember who they were and to cherish our memories of the true lost loved one. 

3. Adjust to the World Without the Lost Loved One

Important people in our lives often take on specific roles. This adds another lay of adjustment and grief after someone close to us has died. We may have to take on more house chores and errands which can serve as additional reminders of the loss or we may have to go to events that we would have gone to with the deceased alone. All of these tasks call on us to adjust to the world without the deceased, not to forget them. When we are unable to make these changes we diminish our capacity to function in the world. 

4. Integrate the Loss into A Meaningful Life

The purpose of Complicated Grief counseling is to integrate the loss into the survivor’s life in a way that allows the surviving person to feel connected to the deceased while still being able to function and feel joy in their lives. The purpose of integration is to create a healing process that celebrates the bond between the survivor and the deceased and highlights the joy experienced with the deceased rather than defining the relationship by the pain experienced as a result of the deceased’s death. 

Grief is not a voyage from which we eventually return unchanged. We hold people who we have formed close connections with in our hearts, even after they have passed away. If you feel you have been in a prolonged, intense state of grief that has prevented you from living a meaningful life while maintaining a connection to your lost loved one, please call our office so we can work on adjusting to the present and redefining the future. 

Be Well,

Marissa Ahern, LMSW

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