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Grief After a Loss Is Normal Until It Becomes Complicated: How Do You Tell the Difference?

By Nancy Scanlan November 18, 2022 Mindset

As we get older, we start losing friends and family. Sometimes we just lose touch with them, with less visits, less phone calls, less letters. Sometimes they fade away from life because of health conditions such as stroke or Alzheimer’s disease. And death takes many before we are ready to say goodbye.

We also lose pieces of our own lives – it is harder to stay in shape, our body looks different, we may have a forced retirement, and we start realizing there are some things we may never get to do.

Grieving Is Normal, but It Isn’t Set in Stone

It is normal to mourn, to grieve, and to begin to feel isolated as your old familiar life and your closest friends and support group slip away.

We are all different, and we all grieve differently. Although stages of grief have been identified, first by Kübler-Ross, and then again by others, different people go through different stages in different orders. We may skip a step or return to it several times.

The amount of time necessary to go through the whole process and emerge with it integrated into your life varies from person to person. For most people, a year is enough.

In that time, painful feelings become less sharp. We work through depression. We find a measure of acceptance with what has happened. We may even find a way to create meaning from the process, setting up a fund to help others or a campaign to increase awareness of certain diseases or situations.

At the end, you will have integrated the process into your life in a way that is more peaceful or even helpful.

But What If You Are Stuck?

Are you unable to get past some of the most painful parts of the grieving process? Do you find yourself repeatedly asking “why” questions that have no good answers?

  • Why didn’t I call them?
  • Why didn’t I send that letter?
  • Why didn’t somebody tell me?
  • Why did that happen to them?
  • Why couldn’t I say I loved them?

Do you grieve losing the person you thought you were, because of unplanned retirement, loss of loved ones, diagnosis of a chronic illness that does not respond to treatment, or by irreversible financial loss?

Are you trapped by grief instead of being able to find a way to cope or reverse the problem? (This can be especially perilous when your doctor does not believe you, or you have been told there is no answer, no way through.)

You may be asking “why” questions like:

  • Why did this happen to me?
  • Why are there age limits for candidates for that job?
  • Why didn’t I see that coming (from that con man)?

Those “why” questions are part of the grieving process. If you can get past them, you are on your way to healing.

But if those questions promote pain, guilt, and anger that do not fade, then you need to try something else.

“What” Works Better

Try replacing the “why” questions with proactive “what” questions:

  • What can I do to communicate better (such as keeping in touch with friends or loved ones)?
  • What can I do that says, “I love you”?
  • What can I do to help others?
  • What can I do to be healthier?
  • Where can I find a doctor who will approach my health differently?
  • What kind of job would be a better fit for me?
  • What can I do to create meaning from this tragedy (such as creating a fund, promoting legislation, or improving a neighborhood)?

If you just need a new way to look at these things, then those “what” questions can get you unstuck. They can point you towards better ways to cope and push you into healthier actions.

Diagnosis: Complicated Grief

If you have been grieving for a year, your grief is as sharp as it was at the beginning, all your thoughts revolve around a lost loved one, and you find it difficult to cope with life, you may be suffering from depression or Complicated Grief, or a combination of both.

Most of us are aware of the possibility of debilitating depression. If you suspect yourself or someone else may be suffering from depression, it is important that you or they get help. Counselors who specialize in grief-associated depression can be really helpful in that regard.

But there is another way of getting stuck, which many doctors are unaware of: Complicated Grief.

Complicated Grief is more like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and is most successfully treated with methods that work for PTSD patients.

If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from Complicated Grief, you will do well to look for a specialist and consult with them about treatment methods and options. Living with any kind of grief can be debilitating, so it’s important to take measures that will free your mind and help you mourn in a healthy way.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What has grief looked like in your life? Have you had an especially hard mourning period when losing someone you were very close to? Have you had any of those “why” questions when you learned that a friend or loved one has died? Did you ever find yourself “stuck” in the grieving process? How did you get through it? Please share in the comments below.

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Hello everyone.
Here’s my story. My lovely husband and I were married for 2 years & I got pregnant with our daughter. Eight weeks into my pregnancy my husband got diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Surgery, chemo & radiotherapy for him throughout my pregnancy. My brother died when my daughter was 6 months old. My husband was sick throughout & died when our daughter was 5. When she was 9 I had to have major heart surgery. A year later my Dad died in a car crash where my younger brother was driving. He hung himself a year later. 3 years later my Mum died of mouth cancer.

So the last 27 years have been a bit of a roller coaster ride. We moved house several times and somehow survived mostly mentally intact? However, only now that my daughter is studying for an MBA and living 6000 miles away do I have the time & space to examine all this. I have started seeing a therapist who specialises in trauma & PTSD.

Hang in there everyone and know that sometimes our lives go mental but there are two choices: put your head under the quilt or get up & walk thru treacle & keep on keeping on. I urge you to do a bit of both.


i wish i were as strong as you – i pretend to be happy alot bc no one wants to be with a person who isn’t somewhat happy


Hi Teresa,
When my friends tell me that I’m strong it sometimes actually hurts me. It wasn’t my idea that my loved ones would die. Then I don’t know how to answer them. Other than what was my alternative to sink or swim?

If the right word is strong, then you are. Just by reaching out here you are resilient and what ever gets you through – I’m a firm believer in fake it till you make it. Go with what ever works on that particular day.


thank you, that’s what i have been doin for 38 years – faking being happy. it gets tiring. God Bless you!


As a professional in the field, I must tell you that it is not true that most are integrated at one year. One year is usually hard, but years three and four are know to be harder for most who have lost someone they had a good relationship with. things are different if the relationship was not good or negative, then there can be relief. But please do not tell people that one year is an average time to feel better, etc..It is quite unhelpful at least , hamful at worst.

Nancy Scanlan

Hi Gayle – as a professional in the field, I am sure you see a lot of people who are having a long grieving period. This article was meant as a way to help people who are having trouble beyond one year, and my heart goes out to all who have responded here.

But my statement is based on published research, which indicates that there are many people you are not coming in contact with, because they have had shorter grieving times. In fact, that is why the research is published, by psychologists and psychiatrists who say that complicated grief is less common than grief lasting less than one year.

2 examples of such research:
Rosner R, Pfoh G, Kotoučová M. Treatment of complicated grief. Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2011;2.

Gort G. Pathological grief: causes, recognition, and treatment. Can Fam Physician. 1984 Apr;30:914-24.

Janet Nunley

It will be 2 years tomorrow since my husband was killed in a truck accident. The truck caught fire and was completely destroyed with him in it. We were unable to see him and there seemed to be no closure. I have suffered with the why didn’t I do this and that before he was killed. But the one thing that keeps me going is our 2 daughters and 5 grandchildren. He was not afraid to die so that is a comfort. He was a Christian and believed there is a Heaven. One thing he always ask me to do was to keep his memory alive and make sure that our grandchildren remembered who he was and the many things they did together. The youngest was only 15 months when he died. I have managed through pictures of them together and many pictures of him through the years to let them know who he was.
The one thing that triggers my emotions is songs we listened to throughout the years and the memories attached to those songs. It’s a daily process of grieving in different ways both bitter and sweet. My cousin’s daughter was killed 27 years ago and she is still struggling but we lean on each other for support.
Life goes on and I find comfort in knowing he would want all of us to live today like there is no tomorrow.
It has helped me to write and hope that it will help someone else.
Have a wonderful day!


Thanks for sharing.❤️🙏

Gail Brooks

It’s been 7 years since my husband died. I had retired 5 days before his very unexpected death in bed one morning. Such a great piece of.y spirit died with him. I have one adult daughters and she has little empathy for how long I have suffered. He read my rock


A long strangement from my adult children has gone on for years, and has triggered a cardiac condition called broken heart syndrome (takotsubo cardiomyopathy.) Being a mother , one mourns the loss. It doesn’t just end one day.


Hi Allison I am in the same situation as you and it doesn’t get any easier as time goes on. I have heard from others that this is quite common with adult children, but it doesn’t help. With a death you can grieve and remember the loved one in a positive way, but with estrangement you feel guilty even though you in your heart know you shouldn’t. Kind regards Julia


yes estrangement is very difficult- you see others with their kids and grand kids and it hurts. my daughter, who i have helped over the year, financially and personally seems to be able to put things behind her and move on. I’m not so lucky, that way!. there is that deep down hurt, that sticks around, no matter what you try to do.

The Author

Nancy Scanlan, DVM, holistic veterinarian turned Master Certified Health Coach and Terrain Ten advocate, is passionate about sharing natural ways to create a longer, healthier life. To explore the role of diet, herbs, and supplements proven helpful to cancer warriors, see her blog at, or check her Pinterest page.

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