Coping With the Loss of a Loved One

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The grief process

Major depression and complicated grief


It’s common for people to have sadness, pain, anger, bouts of crying, and a depressed mood after a loved one dies. It’s important to know about normal grief responses so that you can know if the bereaved person might be getting worse—going into a major depression.

About 1 in 5 bereaved people will develop major depression (also called clinical depression). This can often be helped by therapy and medicines. People at highest risk for clinical depression include those who have been depressed before, those with no support system, those who have had problems with alcohol or drug abuse, or those who have other major life stresses.

Symptoms of major depression not explained by normal bereavement may include:

  • Constant thoughts of being worthless or hopeless
  • Ongoing thoughts of death or suicide (other than thoughts that they would be better off dead or should have died with their loved one)
  • Being unable to perform day-to-day activities
  • Intense guilt over things done or not done at the time of the loved one’s death
  • Delusions (beliefs that are not true)
  • Hallucinations (hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there), except for “visions” in which the person briefly hears or sees the deceased
  • Slower body responses and reactions
  • Extreme weight loss

If symptoms like these last more than 2 months after the loss, the bereaved person is likely to benefit from professional help. If the person tries to hurt him- or herself, or has a plan to do so, they need help right away.

In some people, the grieving process can go on for a long time. This happens more often in those who were very close to the deceased. It’s most often caused by attempts to deny or get away from the pain or trying to avoid letting go.

Complicated grief

If normal mourning does not occur, or if the mourning goes on for a long time without any progress, it’s called “complicated grief” or “unresolved grief.” Symptoms might include:

  • Continued disbelief in the death of the loved one, or emotional numbness over the loss
  • Being unable to accept the death
  • Feeling preoccupied with the loved one or how they died
  • Intense sorrow and emotional pain, sometimes including bitterness or anger
  • Being unable to enjoy good memories about the loved one
  • Blaming oneself for the death
  • Wishing to die to be with the loved one
  • Excessively avoiding reminders of their loss
  • Continuous yearning and longing for the deceased
  • Feeling alone, detached from others, or distrustful of others since the death
  • Trouble pursuing interests or planning for the future after the death of the loved one
  • Feeling that life is meaningless or empty without the loved one
  • Loss of identity or purpose in life, feeling like part of themselves died with the loved one

For some people who are taking care of a loved one with a long-term illness, complicated grief can actually start while their loved one is still alive. Caregivers under severe stress, especially if the outlook is bleak, may be at higher risk of having abnormal grief even before the death.

If you or anyone close to the deceased has any of the above symptoms of major depression or complicated grief, talk with a qualified health or mental health professional. Certain kinds of mental health treatment have been shown to help people with complicated grief. Treatment is important, since people with complicated grief are at risk of their emotional illness getting worse, and are at higher risk of committing suicide.

Last Medical Review: 12/23/2014
Last Revised: 03/11/2015