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What to Do When a Loved One is Experiencing Complicated Grief

By February 8, 2019December 31st, 2020Caregiving Mental & Behavioral Health Well-being
A grieving older man is consoled by a woman.

During the grief process, we search for a sense of peace and acceptance after a painful loss. Rationally, we know that both loss and bereavement are healthy, normal parts of life, but that doesn’t always make the grieving process easier.

You can probably list the major stages of grief. Although everyone experiences grief in different ways, most people will have some feelings of sadness and depressed mood, and many experience listlessness, fatigue or insomnia, and a desire to socially withdraw. Because the symptoms of grief are similar to those of depression, even healthy grief can look like this common mental health condition. Luckily, most grieving will resolve on its own with time.

Navigating Grief as a Caregiver

It can feel like the landscape of caregiving is littered with grief: the grief that a sick or aging person feels as their identity or role in the world changes, the grief that comes with the end of each of life’s phases, the acute, immediate grief of losing a loved one, and the complicated grief of missing the way things used to be. And if you’re the caregiver of a loved one who is sick or aging, you may find that you’re grieving, too, even as you try to care for someone whose grief is even bigger and harder to manage. This creates layers of grief to navigate.

When Grief Becomes Worrisome

Some individuals have difficulty moving through their grief, and when this happens, it can cause more pain, leaving them feeling stuck or unresolved. Complicated grief can look like life-shattering trauma — complete with wild, overwhelming moods, preoccupying regrets, and concerning symptoms, such as the loss of appetite for food, sleep, and companionship. Surprisingly, it can also look pretty normal: sometimes inefficient grief is grief that’s unprocessed because an individual avoids, denies, or suppresses their feelings.

When grief isn’t resolved, it can turn into depression. Those with a predisposition to depression and anxiety may be the most vulnerable to this, but it can happen to anyone. Some warning signs that the grieving process is no longer healthy include:

  • Preoccupying feelings of worthlessness
  • Extreme guilt or regret
  • Frequent agitation, long after the initial period of loss
  • Low self-esteem
  • Preoccupying feelings of helplessness or powerlessness

These signs indicate that a person’s grief may have triggered an episode of more serious depression. If that’s the case, then that person may need more than time to resolve it. A doctor can recommend support groups and other therapies that may be helpful in working through complicated grief.

Supporting Healthy Grieving

The good news is, there are many ways to support healthy grieving, even if you’re grieving, too. In fact, one of the best ways to ease bereavement is by connecting with others. Try some of these tips if you want to smooth the grieving process for yourself and your loved ones:

  • Spend quiet time together, even if you don’t have the energy to do much.
  • Prioritize self-care to reduce stress.
  • Consider volunteering, and you may lift your spirits at the same time.
  • Work on incorporating gentle, healthy movement to take advantage of the feel-good hormones of exercise.

Grieving can be hard, sad work, but with time, it eases. If you’re concerned about someone who’s grieving, especially an older adult, speak to their health care provider. No one should have to struggle with grief alone.


Mara Hughes

I work in Medicare Marketing at Independence and blog about navigating life with chronic illness and other issues relevant to caregivers and health care consumers of all ages.