The death of a loved one is invariably among the most painful experiences we endure as humans. The absence of a loved one from our earthly lives forever, whether sudden and unexpected or anticipated through illness, changes us and often leaves us with a heavy and grieving heart.

Over time, we generally find ways to accept the loss and move forward in life without our loved one, but that is not always the case. Grief over the death of a loved one can sometimes become the central focus of our lives, and instead of evolving with us, can mire us in a state of depression or mourning that keeps us from moving forward. We become focused on our loss instead of our lives.

This is called Complicated Grief. I wish to make a clear distinction here that “normal” grief can be with us for a long time. In a healthy grieving process the grief changes and grows as we do. Healthy grief carries our memories of our loved one with us through life, always available to bring tears when we think of their smile, laughter, and love. Grief does not become complicated simply because of its longevity.

Grief does become complicated when it consumes us and holds us in intense mourning over time, and feelings of sadness can become mixed with anger, bitterness, guilt, or shame. When grief begins to interfere with our ability to enjoy life or to focus on the living instead of the dead, it may be time to seek help.

Complicated grief can cause us to experience symptoms of depression, such as withdrawing from friends and family, inability to carry out daily activities, trouble with sleep or appetite, and frequent crying.

Many factors can cause grief to become complicated. If the loved one’s death occurred after an argument, people can be left with overwhelming guilt and become obsessed with a wish to turn back time and repair those hurts. Often if a death is sudden or tragic, family members can be left with too many questions and too few answers to be able to find acceptance. Suicide can also very often leave survivors struggling with overwhelming feelings of anger and guilt as well as grief, and again, too many unanswered questions and no opportunity to find answers.

If you or a loved one are experiencing a grief that has not changed over time and that appears to be causing your loved one increasing pain, it may be time to consider counseling. Counseling can help to unlock the “stuckness” of our pain, to facilitate acceptance of the loss, and to find a “new normal” life without our loved one, but with memories we can cherish.

It is my belief that healthy grief never goes away. I can never remember my parents or other loved ones who have died without feeling my throat tighten and my eyes fill, but frankly I wouldn’t want to. My tears and heaviness are vestiges of my love for them. If I can’t use my eyes to take in the beautiful sight of my mother saying something hilariously inappropriate, I can use them to honor her with a tear that, if she were still alive, would have been a tear of laughter.

Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC is a therapist who specializes in individual, family, and couples and marriage counseling in Denver, CO. She provides services through Maria Droste Counseling Center.

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by Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC