A brief internet search for the expression ‘complicated grief’ will quickly reveal that this topic is … complicated! Experts argue at great length over whether complicated grief exists as a discrete entity and, if so, how it should be defined and what it should be called. All these academic arguments need not concern us here, but at the same time they alert us to the fact that grief, an intense emotional process resulting from the bereavement of a loved one, is difficult and at times, for some of us, extremely difficult.
Our capacity for life can grow
As a community of parents who have lost a child or children, we know that our resulting grief is onerous and hard to bear. We can testify that we have many complex feelings to endure before we might begin to reach a place where we can live our lives more peacefully and plan a future. This gradual sense of increasing capacity is not because our loss has become less important to us with passing time, but because we have begun to find ways to live with our loss. We can bear it more easily than we could in the earlier period.
I have yet to meet a bereaved parent who has not had a significant struggle in reaching a calmer place. But I have met many parents who would agree that, eventually, life once again has meaning. There are things they look forward to and they can enjoy remembering their child without experiencing intense, unbearable sadness. However, we need also to acknowledge that, for some, to reach such a place feels unimaginably hard and even after one, two, three or more years, life feels just as painful as it did at the beginning. The academic community who study grief and bereavement suggest this might be the case for 10 to 20% of all people who are bereaved: a very significant number.
Grief is not an illness or a disorder, it is a process we need to go through as human beings in reaction to the loss of someone who is close to us.
This is the way we are wired. We form powerful attachments to our loved ones and when these are broken we yearn desperately for those we have lost. This results in all sorts of very powerful, uncomfortable and often overwhelming feelings and behaviours – anger, despair, disorientation, sleeplessness, forgetfulness and so on. The intensity of our painful emotions can feel too much to bear at times. All of this, especially following the death of a child, is both normal and deeply unpleasant. Those of us reading this, know this; we’re still there or we’ve been there and we don’t forget.
What is complicated grief?
Complicated grief is an expression that is sometimes used to describe grief that doesn’t begin to resolve over a period of time, where nothing seems to change and the griever is struggling just as much as they were at the painful beginning of the process. Life continues to feel unbearable and attending to the normal requirements of living, working and relating to others remains overwhelming. The future remains a bleak and unwelcome prospect.
There are a number of factors that may play a part in such a situation developing including the loss of a child at any time for any reason, lack of adequate support around you, not having a chance to say goodbye, a sudden unexplained death, particularly traumatic circumstances of death, multiple losses, grief that is silenced by an accompanying sense of shame or is unacknowledged, a medical history of previous depression or other mental health difficulties, to name a few.
Many of the things we experience are normal
It can be hard, if not impossible, for us to know whether how we are doing is ‘normal’. One of the things we most commonly hear in our community of bereaved parents is the fear that ‘I should be doing better by now’ or ‘I think I’m going mad’, when in fact what the person is experiencing is within the normal expectations following a particularly difficult loss. Though we can give no hard and fast advice here, if your burden of grief feels intolerable it may be a good idea to visit your doctor and talk with them about your struggles. They can listen to you more objectively and hopefully point you in the direction of more focused help and support if they judge that is what is required.
A number of personal stories on the Bereaved Parent Support section of the Care for the Family website give an insight into how some parents have experienced difficult grief and what they have done about it. Please remember there is no need to feel ashamed about struggling deeply. You didn’t choose this, and there are people in our befriending team who will do their best to understand and support you, whilst being aware that there are no quick and easy answers.