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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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Hi everyone.
In July it was 2 years since my younger son, Matt, was killed in a handgun accident. He was 25. His picture is below. This has been extremely difficult. The pain still feels very, very sharp. One thing that I will never forget was my exhusband texting me on the 2nd anniversary of his death. He wrote that he knew it must have been an extremely painful day for me but that Matt’s memories make up so much more than what happened that night 2 years earlier. This made such an impression that I decided I would no longer honor Matt on his death anniversary. Only on his birthday from now on. It feels so much better and right somehow. I hope this idea can help others.


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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