Uncomplicated vs. Complicated Grief Responses

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  • 0:03 The Loss
  • 1:22 The Grieving Process
  • 3:21 Complicated vs.…
  • 4:04 Reactions of Others
  • 5:16 Risk Factors
  • 6:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson examines the different reactions people have to the loss of a loved one. In particular, you'll learn the distinction between complicated and uncomplicated grief and why professional support is sometimes needed.

The Loss

It's been eight months since Bill's wife, Jada, died. It's been a long road to adjust to life without her, and with her birthday approaching, Bill starts to experience intense feelings of loss again. The tears come, and he finds himself thinking of her frequently.

Since Jada's death, Bill's slowly adapted his life in her absence. He's just started getting back to some of the activities he enjoys and is feeling more at peace. Yet, her birthday brings back so many memories that he finds himself grieving once again.

It's been an even rougher time for his sister-in-law, Devon, whose life has come to a standstill since Jada's death. Jada had been her best friend. It seems as though Devon hasn't laughed or enjoyed herself since her husband died two years ago. Now that Jada is gone, too, she hasn't been able to sleep well or eat properly.

When Bill mentions honoring Jada's birthday in some way, Devon asks him not to talk about it, since it brings up a lot of pain for her. At times, she is preoccupied thinking about Jada and other times completely avoids any reminders of her.

This lesson discusses complicated versus uncomplicated grief and the varied responses people, like Bill and Devon, may have to death of a loved one.

The Grieving Process

Bill and Jada are each going through their own grief process. The grief process involves ongoing emotions and reactions experienced by a person who is coping with a loss. It is considered a process because grief ranges in duration and intensity and happens over the course of time, with no specific end point.

Theorists have proposed the concept of specific stages of grief, yet no theory predicts exactly what a person will experience when they go through the loss of a loved one. Responses can vary from disbelief to anger to yearning and even having very few emotions at all. Put simply, there is no one way to grieve.

Bill and Devon both experienced acute grief when they first lost Jada. Acute grief is response to a loss involving strong emotions, preoccupation with the deceased or avoidance of reminders of the person. Bill found himself yelling and crying one minute, then feeling completely numb the next. He found himself dreaming about her all of the time. On multiple occasions, he could have sworn he had seen her when out in public, though he realized afterwards it wasn't her. His work suffered, and he needed to use vacation days in addition to his bereavement days.

Over time, most individuals will start to integrate the loss into their reality and return to their activities, even though life is not the same as it was before the loss. This is known as integrated or abiding grief, adaptation to life without constant preoccupation with the loss or avoidance of it.

Even though Bill is now experiencing integrated grief, he may still return to the strong emotions of acute grief, such as when he is reminded of Jada's birthday. He may experience this type of periodic return to acute grief throughout his life. But his overall experience of life now includes positive emotions and experiences, in addition to the negative emotions associated with her death.

Complicated vs. Uncomplicated Grief

Bill's experience of grief is known as uncomplicated grief and is to be expected when a person has a loss. The process involves movement toward integrated grief over time, with some periods of acute grief. He still mourns the loss, and at times this can be intense and painful. But as time goes on, he is able to participate in the activities of his life on a regular basis again.

Devon, on the other hand, is experiencing complicated grief, which can be summarized as a disabling condition in which a person is limited in their functioning in everyday life. Mental health professionals use tools to determine if someone is experiencing complicated grief since the diagnosis is not always as clear-cut as in our example.

The Reactions of Others

Since Bill doesn't know about complicated grief, it's hard for him to understand Devon's reaction. Like many people, he compares his own experience of grief to hers to try to understand her. He makes an effort to help her by telling her what to do to move on.

Many people, in an effort to be helpful, have this response to a person experiencing grief: a well-meaning observer often gives guidance based on their own experience. Unfortunately, this can often result in a person, like Devon, feeling even more ashamed and overwhelmed by her emotions. As do many survivors, she finds that returning to joyful emotions and activities can feel like a betrayal of the deceased.

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