Complicated Grief

“It has been years since my husband died, and yet I am so depressed I cannot move.” VS

“My father died many years ago, and I am still so angry at him for leaving me, and with such a big mess to handle.” RS

“Since I lost my husband, I don’t know who I am.” AF

“I yearn for her every day; I don’t know how I can get along without her.” DT

“I keep thinking I should have treated her better. Maybe if I had done things differently…” MP

“Nobody understands how I feel; I don’t understand how I feel.” OD

“She left a hole in my life that I cannot fill.” FP

“Why would God have let him die? What kind of God is he, anyway?” RM  

“I can’t let myself have any joy; that would be disloyal.” AL

Grieving is a natural reaction to loss, whether by death, or by divorce, or by loss of function (as in illness or aging). Most people work their way through the loss and move on with their lives. It can be difficult, but for most people it is doable.

But sometimes people get stuck in their grief. They may feel engulfed by the seemingly unending misery. They may be unable to reconcile the loss and go on with a new way of living. Sometimes grief is complicated by ambivalent feelings toward the lost person. Or the attachment to the lost person may be so deep that the thought of moving on is unthinkable. Or there is unrelenting anger at the loss. Or the sense of guilt is crippling.

Time and social support ease the pain. Social support can take many forms: giving advice, doing necessary tasks, engaging in ceremonies, and, most of all, providing empathic listening and responding.

Empathy is a kind of “really hearing and deeply understanding others”. It is like temporarily “putting oneself in their shoes” and experiencing things in their way. It is crucial to their well-being, especially in times of distress; it is a form of emotional nutrition. Empathizing with the bereaved helps people to heal.  

Bereavement is different for different people. So, empathizing with them will take different forms. Some people need company; some need solitude. Some people are comforted by religious rituals; some don’t need them. Distraction is good for some people, and getting back to work is what is needed. Distraction is not so useful to others. Some people are expressive of their feelings; some are rather self-contained. Some people are stoic; some people get unhinged.

Empathizing requires people to set aside their own concerns and temporarily adopt the concerns of the bereaved, allowing oneself to fully experience them. It is by observing and resonating with others that we can experience empathy with them. Once we have gotten into their shoes we are able to choose some kind response that lets them know that we “get” then. It is a very meaningful and transformative experience to get “got”. And it will help the healing of grief.