What Is Complicated Grief?

Dr Kailey Roberts, PhD, explains what complicated grief is, how you know if you have it, how you can find support, and how to integrate self-care methods to heal.

Dr Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology at Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, specializing in bereavement and palliative care psychology. Much of her research centers on improving bereavement care access and services for caregivers and families. Connecting her teaching, research, and work as a therapist, is her focus on supporting individuals facing loss through connection to their sense of meaning and purpose.

You can participate and contribute to her research here. 

Dr Kailey Roberts

When facing a significant loss, at some point many people will ask themselves if they are “grieving right” or if something is “wrong” with them. We are so inundated with messages and expectations about how grief should go, what it “should” look like, that we cannot help but wonder if we are grieving right. And oftentimes, grief can be so painful that we want to believe that there is a better way to grieve, that there is some predictability to the pain, or that we can hope for a clear endpoint.

The truth is there is no “right” way to grieve. Coping with the death of meaningful person may last a lifetime. Anniversaries, life milestones, even just small reminders of the person may bring back the pangs of grief. For many people, while grief may last a lifetime, the intensity and extent to which it dominates their life will dissipate with time and they will begin to co-exist with the grief. For others though, grief may take over and prevent them from living a life of meaning or even tending to day-to-day tasks. This experience has been characterized as complicated or prolonged grief.

What Is Complicated Grief Disorder?

Complicated grief disorder is a term that has been used to refer to grief that is so severe and unrelenting that it impacts one’s ability to live one’s life, long after experiencing the death of a loved one.

It has also been referred to as prolonged grief disorder (PGD). And, in recent years, PGD has become the formal term used in sources used by clinicians to diagnose psychological conditions, such as the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Contrary to the implications of its name, prolonged grief disorder, does not inherently dictate a correct timeline for grieving. Rather, one of the criteria of PGD indicates that it cannot be diagnosed until at least one year has passed since the person became bereaved. Again, grief can and often does last a lifetime. Especially in the first year of a loss, it can be so intense and all-encompassing that it may feel or look like something is wrong. So this 12-month mark is really more of an indicator to prevent doctors or mental health providers from incorrectly diagnosing someone with prolonged grief when they are newly bereaved.

Signs of Complicated Grief

As time passes after experiencing the death of a loved one, there may be signs that you might be experiencing complicated or prolonged grief and may benefit from professional support. These can include a profound and unending yearning for the person who died, a sense that life has no meaning or purpose without this person, emotional numbness, intense loneliness and disconnection from others, and a sense of disbelief that the person has died. While any of these might characterize our experience of grief at certain times, it can be important to seek out additional support if you find that the grief is persistently interfering with day-to-day living long after your loved one’s death.

You might find the Weill Cornell Grief Intensity Scale questionnaire useful in working out whether you need additional support.

Treatment for Complicated Grief

If you find yourself experiencing signs of prolonged grief or if you just aren’t sure how to cope with your grief, you may benefit from seeking out professional grief support. This support may involve providing you with space to talk about your grief, about the person who died, and to provide you with tools to help you to co-exist with your grief.

Remember that it is okay to shop around for a counselor or therapist. You may look for someone who has experience working with grieving individuals and who has training in grief therapies. Often counselors or therapists will describe their expertise on websites but don’t be afraid to ask directly as well. It is also important to feel like they are a good fit for you and your needs.

Check out our small eBook: ’99 Ways to Spot a Great Grief Counselor’.

In addition to seeking out professional support, here are some more ways you can support your own grieving process:

3 Self-Care Ways of Healing from Complicated Grief

1. Cultivating Self-Compassion

Coping with grief at any point involves first and foremost cultivating self-compassion and allowing yourself to grieve.

It is important to give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling.

Sometimes that might mean allowing the pain to surface or sometimes it might mean allowing yourself to shift your focus to something else.

Part of self-compassion may be recognizing your own courage in getting through another day and honoring the small moments of relief, contentment or meaning that come up during the day.

Read about more self-care activities for grief here. 

2. Connecting with Others

If you would like support from others, consider what kind of support you need. Maybe you need that shoulder to cry on. Maybe you want to be around someone who knew your loved one. Or maybe you need someone who is going to take you out to a movie and not talk about grief for a while. Different people in your life will likely be helpful for meeting different needs.

3. Connecting to Meaning

In the face of loss and suffering it can feel like the world doesn’t make sense. We can become disconnected from our sense of purpose, identity, and meaning in life, especially when we are grieving someone significant. Connecting back to a sense of meaning in life, whether in profound or small ways, can be a powerful way to cope with grief.

Reflect on what is important to you and how you might connect even if it is in a different way than you did before. Consider ways to communicate your unique story or values in life. For many bereaved individuals, it can be important to honor and incorporate the story of the person who died.

  • How did and how do they continue to impact you in large and small ways?
  • What has been their impact on others and how might you continue to share their legacy?
  • What were some meaningful moments you had with the person?

It can be powerful to continue to connect to the person and integrate them into your life even as you adapt to living without their physical presence.


For USA Residents: 

Please help our colleagues at Yeshiva University, USA by joining in their research study:

ARE YOU A CAREGIVER OR HAVE YOU RECENTLY LOST SOMEONE SIGNIFICANT?

#33769566.1  IRB Approved at the Study Level. 21 July 2022

We are seeking individuals who are caregiving for someone with a life-limiting illness and those who have experienced a significant loss to participate in a research study through Yeshiva University. The purpose of the study is to develop a questionnaire to identify those who may be in need of caregiver or grief support in order to ultimately improve family-centered care in hospitals and clinics.

For caregivers and bereaved individuals who would like to contribute to our understanding of caregiving and bereavement, this is a way to make a difference.

For USA Residents only.  Click here to learn more. 


Where to get help: 


Click here to learn more about Circles Grief Support Groups


Have You Considered One-on-One Online Grief Counseling? 

Get Private and Confidential Help in the Privacy of Your Own Home

The following information about online counseling is sponsored by 'Betterhelp' but all the opinions are our own. To be upfront, we do receive a commission when you sign up with 'Betterhelp', but we have total faith in their expertise and would never recommend something we didn't completely approve.  

Do you feel alone and sad with no support and no idea how to move forward?  It can be tough when you are stuck in grief to find the motivation to get the most out of your precious life. 

Online counseling can help by giving you that support so you don't feel so alone. You can have someone to talk to anytime you like, a kind and understanding person who will help you to find meaning in life again, to treasure the memories of your loved one without being overwhelmed and to enjoy your activities, family and friends again.


Sales from our pages result in a small commission to us which helps us to continue our work supporting the grieving.  


Hypnosis for Grief - 10 Ways It Can Help You

Try a gentle hypnotherapy track to relax the mind. Learn how self-hypnosis can help you cope with grief at any time of the day or night.  

Read more about it here. 


Dealing with the practicalities: 


For Remembrance: 

Sales from our pages result in a small commission to us which helps us to continue our work supporting the grieving.  


Heart Shaped Sterling Silver Pendant for Cremation Ashes, Engraved Forever Loved

Memorial Jewelry to Honour a Loved One

Check out our lovely range of memorial jewelry for any lost loved one.  Pendants, necklaces, rings or bracelets, we have them all in all kinds of styles.  Choose for yourself or buy as a sympathy gift. 

Click here to see our selection


Create an Online Memorial Website

Honour your loved one with their own memorial website.  Share photos, videos, memories and more with your family and friends in a permanent online website.  Free for basic plan with no ads. 

Find out more here. 

Related PaGes: 

How to Find Grief Support

All about Online Grief Counseling

More about Dealing with Complicated Grief


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