Is grief a mental health disorder?

Grief is an unfortunate albeit inevitable experience that most of us will go through during our lives.


Whether someone suffers the loss of a parent, spouse, child, sibling or friend, all loss is profound and losing someone you love forever is ultimately one of the most distressing experiences one can go through.

Many grievers may find themselves contemplating their reasons for living, while others may find peace and acceptance associated with a loved one’s death a lot quicker.

Death of a loved one

Grief is a normal reaction to loss.

People’s individual experiences with grief can vary since grief is both a universal and personal experience. Grief often gets associated with death, but there are many other examples of loss, including:

  • The ending of a meaningful relationship
  • Loss through theft or identity fraud
  • Loss of a job
  • Pet loss
  • Loss of independence through disability or illness

Prolonged grief

The loss of a loved one can be an unbearably painful experience, and the stages of mourning can last for months or years. 

Grief experts say that people must realize that they can’t control the grieving process and must prepare themselves for the various stages of grief.

Support group

People must take the time to understand their grief.

All this may involve talking to others, such as joining a support group or speaking with a mental health professional and trying to resolve any issues that might be causing intense emotional pain, such as feeling guilty or responsible for a loved ones’ death.

By and large, the acute pain associated with loss tends to become less intense over time, but what does it mean when the psychological despair of grief lingers or becomes worse?

Complicated grief disorder

Grief in itself is not a mental health disorder. Instead, as we’ve already established, grief is a natural reaction to loss that stems from losing a loved one or other significant loss (such as divorce, pet loss, etc.)


After some time, most grievers begin adjusting to life without their loved ones.

Although mourners may experience significant grief symptoms now and then, which get heightened during important occasions like death anniversaries and birthdays, they have managed to integrate the loss into their lives. 

They can enjoy a whole life without the constant grip of grief holding them to ransom.

However, the process works in reverse for those who continue to experience prolonged traumatic emotions long after a loved one’s death. People in this predicament may be suffering from a condition called complicated grief disorder.

What is a complicated grief disorder?

What is grief

Complicated grief, sometimes referred to as persistent complex bereavement disorder, is when emotions are so severe and pervasive that mourners find it impossible to move forward with their lives. They may even experience profound difficulty recovering from the loss.


The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM -5) describes complicated grief as a severe stressor that induces painful and debilitating symptoms of acute grief that usually progress to a person restoring a good albeit changed life.

However, persistent complex bereavement disorder (complicated grief) can become a life-changing mental health disorder if left untreated.

Normal grief

Grief is a unique experience for everyone. However, there are specific stages of grief that most people tend to experience. Normal grief includes:

  • Adjusting to life without your loved one
  • Being able to accept the loss of your loved one
  • Having the ability to experience pain (or allowing yourself to) related to the loss
  • Eventually, moving forward with your life

For individuals who find it challenging or near impossible to get through any of the grief stages above, they are likely suffering from complicated grief.

Symptoms of complicated grief

The symptoms associated with complicated grief are similar to that of normal grief in the beginning.

Grief may induce a variety of feelings and emotions immediately after losing a loved one, which eventually subsides.

However, complicated grief is essentially a person getting stuck in a perpetual state of never-ending mourning. Unlike ”normal” grief, complicated grief doesn’t get better over time; instead, it becomes worse.


Some of the signs associated with complicated grief include:

  • Difficulty accepting the death
  • Problems completing basic tasks and sticking to regular routines
  • Believing that you could have prevented the death
  • Feeling bitter and numb about the loss
  • Feeling empty as though life has no meaning
  • Wishing you had died with your loved one
  • Inability to enjoy life and experience pleasure
  • Intense pain and sorrow related to the loss of your loved one
  • Experiencing guilt, depression and deep sadness
  • Avoiding any reminders of your lost loved one or extreme focus on reminders
  • Persistent longing for your lost loved one
  • Social isolation and withdrawal

Risk factors

There are distinct risk factors involved in complicated grief disorder that may increase the chances of someone developing the disorder. They include:

  • Having a close or dependent relationship with the deceased
  • A violent or unexpected event such as murder, fatal car accident or suicide
  • Social isolation or loss of a support group
  • Substance abuse problems
  • History of mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression
  • Death of a child

Other factors

Other factors that put people at risk of complicated grief disorder include genetics, environment and individual personality types.

Is it possible to prevent complicated grief?

Research suggests that grievers, particularly those in high-risk groups, should seek the help and support of mental health professionals or a counsellor immediately after losing a loved one to prevent the onset of a mental disorder such as complicated grief.

Getting treated

By seeking therapy early on in the bereavement process, bereaved individuals can explore the full range of emotions and eventually adopt coping strategies to help them through their loss.

Talking about your feelings

Another beneficial aspect to preventing complicated grief disorder is for grievers to seek support and guidance from family members, friends and support groups who can help them work through their grieving.

Talking about your feelings and emotions in a safe and encouraging space and allowing yourself to experience the pain will inevitably help you move through the varying stages of grief and ultimately help you shift into a place of healing.


Complicated grief disorder (or persistent complex bereavement disorder) is a DSM-5 diagnosis given to people who exhibit an unusually prolonged or disabling response to grief.

Feelings of intense longing often get accompanied by destructive thoughts and behaviours, including a general impairment in resuming everyday life.

According to research conducted by Shear, Simon, Wall, Zoosk, Duan and Reynolds (2011), persistent complex bereavement disorder is characterized by unshakeable grief that doesn’t follow the general pattern of improvement that gets expected over time.

Instead, individuals continue to experience powerful emotions or mood swings and unusual, profound symptoms that impair substantial areas of functioning, which often cause extreme distress.

Diagnostic criteria

Diagnosing and treating grief

Since persistent complex bereavement disorder is a relatively new disorder, it has gotten filed in a chapter under the DSM-5 that outlines other areas of study.

However, several diagnostic criteria have gotten suggested by a syndicate of mental health professionals and health practitioners around the globe, which include:

  • The patient must have experienced the death of a loved one six months previously

At least one of the following symptoms must be present for longer than expected:

  • Frequent preoccupation with the deceased
  • Recurrent thoughts that life is unfair or meaningless without the deceased
  • Persistent and intense yearning for the deceased
  • Intense feelings of loneliness and emptiness
  • An urge to join the dead in death

Additionally, the following symptoms must get recorded for at least one month:

  • Rumination surrounding the circumstances or consequences of the death
  • Feeling stunned, numb or shocked since the deceased’s death
  • Bitterness or anger about the death
  • Avoidance of reminders about the dead – or on the flip side, seeking out reminders to feel closer to the lost loved one
  • Issues with intimacy, trust and caring for others
  • Intense reactions to memories or reminders about the deceased


Although complicated grief disorder is under review pending further study, researchers and mental health specialists are well aware of the consequences of the condition on grievers.

Symptoms frequently cause profound distress for sufferers and can impact significant areas of functioning that cannot get ascribed to other causes.

People who believe they may be experiencing symptoms of complicated grief must seek the help and support of a licensed mental health professional before their symptoms become unmanageable.

Contact us

If you think you might be suffering from symptoms of complicated grief, our mental health specialists can help you work through any difficult feelings. 

Contact us today to find out how we can help.

Don Lavender

Don specialized in addiction studies, earning an MDiv and a master's in Management, Administration, and Counseling. As a priest, he supported Step 5s in local treatment centers for nearly 40 years, excelling in "family systems work" in the addiction field.

Additionally, Don pioneered equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) in the US and UK during the 1990s. He authored "Equine Utilized Psychotherapy: Dance with those that run with laughter" and gained media recognition, including appearances on 'the Trisha Show' and features in The Daily Telegraph.

In the early 2000s, Don and his wife, Meena, founded Camino Recovery in Spain, providing tailored addiction treatment programs aimed at fostering happier lives.

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