What Is Dysfunctional Grief? Common Effects & Getting Help

Husband comforting wife

The grieving process differs for everyone. Dysfunctional grief, otherwise known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, can be incredibly debilitating. If you are experiencing prolonged grief that is negatively impacting your quality of life, know that what you are experiencing is normal and there are things you can do to get some relief.

Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder

The severity, frequency and duration of symptoms in grieving vary widely between people depending on personal circumstances and culture. It might be sometimes difficult to determine when a person is suffering from persistent complex bereavement disorder, according to an article in World Psychiatry (June 2009). However, it is important to acknowledge the severity of these symptoms because those who experience this type of grief are at an increased risk for suicidal ideation and attempts. A study in Psychiatry found that of widows who met the criteria for this type of grief 31 to 62 percent had suicidal ideation.

With that in mind, if you or someone close to you is suffering to the point of having suicidal thoughts, it is so important to get help during this painful time. Remember, intense emotions can drive you to think about or attempt behaviors you normally would not engage in. This is completely understandable especially after such a distressing event has taken place, but you want to make sure you are able to keep yourself safe during this time.

Common Symptoms

Persistent complex bereavement disorder is classified as a type of trauma and stress-related disorder and symptoms must be present for at least 12 months after the person passed away. Remember, there is a huge difference between missing the person and feeling sad compared to being highly distressed in all areas of your life for several years. Keep a lookout for the following symptoms:

  • Candid contemplation
    You have experienced a death of someone with whom you were very close to. This deep connection you had with this person may make going back to your normal life really painful and triggering on a daily basis.
  • You are constantly longing for the person who passed away. This longing may interrupt your ability to take care of yourself in healthy ways. You may forget to eat, be sleeping irregularly, and not have the energy to bathe yourself.
  • You are fixated on the deceased. This can cause a flooding of painful thoughts that may feel overwhelming and unbearable.
  • You are hyper-focused on the details of the death. Doing so can interrupt your other important relationships, which can lead to isolation. You may also have difficulty focusing on your job and may not be able to maintain your career.
  • You feel intense and persistent emotional pain. This can disrupt every aspect of your life from relationships to career, to acts of daily living.
  • You avoid reminders of the deceased, even to the point of inconvenience. This can drive you to make decisions based on what triggers you which can impact your ability to go out in public, run errands and generally take care of yourself.
  • You blame yourself for the death. Many people wonder why the death happened and look for ways they could have prevented it. Blaming yourself can lead to depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts.
  • You feel emotionally numb. This is a common occurrence and tends to go hand in hand with the shocked feeling that can accompany the passing of someone so special.
  • You have trouble accepting the death. Doing so can make the death seem even more real and painful.
  • You want to die so you can be with the deceased again. These aren't necessarily suicidal thoughts, but more of a longing to connect with the deceased again, which is completely understandable, but also makes living in the present more challenging.
  • You have trust issues following the death. After someone this important passes away, it can be hard to believe that your relationships have this unwavering consistency and permanence. They may feel very temporary and even pointless.
  • You feel isolated and detached. Feeling this way for a prolonged period can lead to suicidal thoughts, not to mention immense emotional discomfort.
  • You aren't enjoying life and feeling like life is empty and pointless. These are incredibly painful feelings to be experiencing on a regular basis and cause the mind and body a lot of stress.
  • You question your identity and your purpose. These thoughts can lead to depressed moods, anxiety, and trouble sleeping through the night.
  • You're experiencing a decrease in your typical interests since the death. This can impact your mood tremendously since participating in hobbies tends to bring people joy and enable meaningful social connections.

When the Grieving Process Becomes Highly Distressing

Even though it is difficult to classify grief and label it, it is important to remember that doing so can help people suffering from significant distress get the help that they may need to make it through this incredibly difficult time in their life. If your grief has persisted intensely for over a year and is impairing your quality of life, it may be a good idea to find a professional who can help you process what you are going through. It is important to keep an eye on your emotional well-being during this time, so you can work through this difficult transition.

The Effects of Persistent Complex Grief

Grieving is stressful for the mind and body to go through. If you are operating at such an intense, debilitating level for longer than a year, you may begin to experience other mind and body issues. Based on a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry the following symptoms can occur:

  • unhappy
    Psychological disorders or symptoms such as major depressive disorder or anxiety, suicidal thoughts and, less commonly, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Distorted thoughts and senses which might cause visual and auditory hallucinations
  • Increased chance of chronic pain, headaches and weight loss or gain, as well as an increased risk for chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure, cancer, heart disease or stroke

These symptoms can make it even more difficult to grieve as your stress levels increase. It is so important to take care of yourself during the grieving process and reach out if you feel highly overwhelmed on a daily basis.

Taking Care of Yourself

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the goal of grieving is not about "letting go," as much as it is about creating a different, healthy connection that allows you to function well. If you are struggling with your grieving process, therapy that builds resourcefulness, coping skills and assists you in processing your emotions can be very helpful.

Depending on the types and severity of symptoms the following therapies can help:

  • depression
    Grief counseling - Grief counseling is supportive psychotherapy that helps someone to examine her feelings, thoughts and reactions and can help the person alleviate highly distressing symptoms.
  • Cognitive-behavioral grief therapy - This is a type of behavioral therapy that helps a person understand how their thoughts, emotions and behaviors impact each other.
  • Pastoral or spiritual counseling - Counseling from your pastor or spiritual leader can be helpful to those who find comfort in religion, according to Harvard Health Publications.
  • EMDR- This is a trauma-based therapy that helps people process intense, distressing memories and emotions.

Treatment will help you work through your grief and decrease your uncomfortable symptoms so you can honor your loved one while working toward increasing your quality of life.

Honoring Your Loved One

This may be the most difficult and painful experience that you go through, so take your time and be patient with yourself. Sometimes it can be helpful to do something every day that reminds you of the amazing relationship you had with the person who passed away. Planting a flower or plant that reminds you of this person and tending to it every day can create a special moment where you get to connect with this person. You can also create a space in your home that honors the deceased, and you can spend some time there when you want to connect with his or her memory.

When to Seek Professional Help

If you are having a hard time working through your grief, meeting with a professional may be helpful. It is incredibly brave to find help when you feel too overwhelmed and by doing so you are proactively taking care of yourself, which is something to be proud of. You may consider talking to a counselor or therapist if:

  • Your grief reaction is making you feel unwell or unsafe.
  • It is difficult to cope and function effectively.
  • Your symptoms cause you to suffer intensely for more than a year.
  • You have thoughts of suicide.
  • You have other symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD.
  • Symptoms that started soon after your loss are not progressively improving or are getting worse.
  • You are drinking too much alcohol or abusing drugs to avoid painful feelings.

Helping Yourself Heal

flowers at grave stone

Losing a loved one is an incredibly painful experience to go through and everyone experiences loss differently. If you notice that you are exhibiting several signs of persistent complex bereavement, make it a priority to take care of yourself so you can process the loss at your own pace, while also moving toward increasing your quality of life.

What Is Dysfunctional Grief? Common Effects & Getting Help