Complicated Grief

Complicated grief (grief that is more difficult to overcome) can occur for many reasons. The traditional reason that most people think of is, losing someone you love because they have passed away. Realistically we grieve for many other reasons. Perhaps your dearest friend has moved away. Maybe you and your significant other broke up, or perhaps the relationship is no longer working for you. You may grieve the wonderful aspects of your relationship, yet the bad outweighs the good.

Grief can come in the form of a job loss, or not getting the job you wanted. Maybe you didn’t pass that exam and can’t go into the career you want. As you can see, grief takes on many forms. Most people grieve and can move forward. However, complicated grief goes on much longer, with a lot of rumination, or excessive worry. The focus of this blog will be on losing someone you love.

Parental relationships

In a perfect world, we will lose our parents at a ripe old age somewhere in the 80’s or 90’s, based on life expectancy. Hopefully our relationship with them was warm, open and loving. However, we all know that it doesn’t happen like that for everyone. If it was that way for you, my heart is filled with warmth. If you didn’t have the best relationship, then my heart goes out to you. There are some things that may be helpful for you.

Toxic relationships

Some clients have a contentious relationship with their parents, or the relationship is toxic. Other clients have parents who were abusive in some way, shape or form. You might think that if this were the case for you, you’d think good riddance, or you might be happy that the offender is gone. Yet in working with people in these situations, they still love their parents, which makes it complicated grief. It may seem impossible to understand how you could still love someone even though they treat you poorly. However, we are biologically wired to love our parents. When you think about it, our very survival depends on it. We need our parents to keep us alive as infants and toddlers. So staying close by allows us to be protected.

As crazy as this might sound, those who have a difficult relationship with their parents, and then lose a parent, are the ones who grieve the most. You may wonder why. For most people the reason is that it is now impossible to have the type of relationship they crave with their parents. Even though it may be toxic, as long as the parent is alive, there is this glimmer of hope that the relationship can improve. Once the parent dies, the hopes and dreams of a warmer relationship go with it.

Examples of unhealthy relationships

I had a client a year ago, who could not stand his mother. As she got older, he said he could care less about her, and would be glad when she was gone. However, once it did happen, it shook him up. He had no idea how horrible he’d feel after the fact and was experiencing complicated grief. Realistically, none of us can know how we will react until it happens.

Another example is from a friend of mine. Her mother is in her low 90s and in a nursing home. My friend is close with her mother and drives 12 hours every six weeks to visit mom as she lives out of state. Her sister and mom have not had a conversation in over a decade. For some reason neither one speaks to the other. Interestingly mom and sister each ask my friend about the other, and want to know if the other asks about them. The answer is yes. Sister and mom both ask my friend about the other. They still care about each other, yet are too stubborn to pick up the phone or visit.


I’m certainly not saying that you need to have a close relationship with your family members if they are abusive to you. But ask yourself, ‘Is this relationship I have how I want it to be, and is there anything I can do to improve it?’ Don’t wait for the elderly person to do so. They are more set in their ways than you are, and you will be the one left after they die.

Perhaps you want to just have short periods of time with them. Instead of cutting them out, can you talk for 10 minutes at a time, or visit for an hour? Even if you can have some sort of small relationship with them, you will most likely feel better when they were gone. At least you will know that you extended the olive branch and did everything you could. The more you can do while they are alive, the less chance you will experience complicated grief.

I know this is all easier said than done. It’s never too late to work on a relationship. If grief or difficult relationships impact you, please give me a call at 713-304-6554.

Take care,