Grief Expressions & the Possibility of Complicated Grief

shutterstock_250745014The expression of grief is one of the oldest and most universal experiences in life. Sometimes expressions of grief and mourning fit into a cultural or religious context. At other times, grief is a highly personal and individual experience. One of the disadvantages of dealing with grief on your own is that it can be difficult to tell when you or someone you love is experiencing complicated grief, which the Mayo Clinic refers to as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder.

Recognizing Complicated Grief

Grief can be difficult to gauge because there is no set timeline or standard for when and how it unfolds. This is compounded by the fact that, at least initially, normal grief and complicated grief look the same. The Mayo Clinic outlines the trademark phases of normal grief. Full acknowledgement of a loss is often delayed, especially if a loved one dies unexpectedly, or if you lose someone you did not interact with on a daily basis (such as a friend or family member who lived far away). You should also expect that grief will be characterized by contradictory thoughts and emotions and may subside only to come back in full force during significant times like birthdays or anniversaries.  What distinguishes complicated grief is that it does not subside at all; instead, it often grows worse as time passes. Rather than moving on from your loss, you become immersed in it and may be incapable of fulfilling responsibilities or maintaining relationships with friends and family members.

Risk Factors of Complicated Grief

Little is known about the causes of complicated grief —they can range from inherited genetic traits to environment, individual personality or any combination of various factors. While there is no exact means of determining if someone will struggle with complicated grief (or, if they do, what consequences it will have), there are risk factors that may increase susceptibility. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include the nature of the relationship with the deceased (especially if the bereaved was close to or dependent on them), the circumstances surrounding the death (such as unexpected or violent causes) and the presence of other exceptionally stressful factors in one’s life. The lack of a good support system, a history of depression or a traumatic childhood may also contribute to complicated grief. In addition to these potential consequences, complicated grief disrupts one’s ability to enjoy life, to be active in the lives of their friends and family, and to maintain a sense of purpose and meaning. Because of the nature of complicated grief, a person who is struggling with it may be unable to help themselves, or to even recognize that they need help.

Consequences of Complicated Grief

While the causes of complicated grief may not be completely understood, the many serious consequences of this condition are well-documented. They include: significant disturbances to sleep; increased risk of substance abuse; depression, anxiety and/or suicidal thoughts; inability to follow daily routines, maintain relationships or perform at work; increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Grief is inherently complex. The intensity, length and nature of grief depend on each person’s individual personality and the nature of the relationship with the deceased. However, grief recovery is characterized by a steady increase in the ability to re-establish your life and routine, to enjoy work and hobbies and to actively maintain relationships. If you or someone you love is finding it difficult to re-engage in the normal flow of life, complicated grief may be a factor. You should talk to someone you trust or to a medical professional.


Creative Ideas for Personalizing a Funeral

shutterstock_242669224Have you ever attended a funeral in the past that left you feeling worse than when you arrived? Maybe the funeral was too impersonal and didn’t reflect the life of the one you loved so much. Often, the extent to which services are personalized for the individual directly affects the comfort, hope, and closure experienced by those who attend. Because designing a unique ceremony can help friends and family begin the healing process following a loss, planning is important. If you are planning ahead for your own services or for someone you love, consider how you might include personal elements that are significant, meaningful, and comforting for loved ones.

The Ceremony

The funeral ceremony is an ideal time to bring in meaningful elements to help loved ones reflect and remember. Special music, including live music, selected readings, and shared memories are wonderful ways to bring personal touches to the service. Photo displays and tribute videos that highlight significant moments are also often used to share memories. Another way to personalize a funeral service is to include significant items as part of the arrangement, or to place them in the reception or visitation areas. For example, someone who has worked as a rancher may have their saddle, boots, and riding equipment on display. A person who enjoyed collecting antiques could incorporate favorite pieces, as could someone who had a passion for photography, art, or crafts.  Additionally, it is helpful to choose speakers who can share personal memories and reflections on the life that has been lived.

The Procession

The procession is often overlooked as an opportunity to personalize the service, but many different options may be available in your area. The procession may incorporate any number of elements that are significant to the family, from a motorcycle hearse or beloved fishing boat, to vintage cars, horse-drawn carriage, jazz musicians, and much more. Location The location of a funeral or memorial service can also be a significant choice. Outdoor memorial services or graveside services can incorporate butterfly, balloon or dove releases, which help family and friends visualize releasing their loved one. Anyone who enjoys the outdoors could be celebrated in a special place, such as an outdoor garden, a favorite golf course, the beach or lakeside, in a nature preserve, or favorite park. If weather permits, having the ceremony in a beautiful outdoor setting can be a healing reminder of the natural cycle of life and death and may give loved ones some comfort as they begin the healing process.

Reception & Gathering

Spending time with family and friends is important after a loss. A catered meal or pot-luck style gathering can be customized in a number of ways. Planning for specific food or arranging for a certain recipe to be prepared may remind loved ones of home and of special events or holidays. Gatherings can also be organized around a specific theme and accompanied by photos, stories, and even a time for family traditions or activities.  Events in which loved ones can gather for support may also be an ideal occasion for acts of remembrance and closure, such as candle-lightings, symbolic releases, scattering ceremony, or the establishment of physical memorials. These are just a few suggestions for personalizing a funeral or memorial ceremony. Like the individuals they honor, no two events will look alike or carry the same meaning for those in attendance. The important thing is to plan a service that reflects the life that has been lived and allows family and friends to the opportunity to say goodbye.

Reprinted with permission from