Grief is a normal human response to the pain of losing someone. It can be brutal, anguished, disorienting, maddening, enraging, and lonely. 

But ultimately, people do emerge from grief. They may feel forever changed; however, they do find meaning in their lives again. Those difficult feelings eventually make way for positive emotions and experiences again. This is uncomplicated bereavement.   

For others, the loss of a loved one can make life feel meaningless — even unsurvivable. They struggle to experience anything but those debilitating feelings, long after the death of their loved one. This is (or could be) prolonged grief disorder.

Let’s take a closer look at both uncomplicated bereavement and prolonged grief disorder as well as how individuals can effectively grieve the loss of a loved one and heal.

Definition of Uncomplicated Bereavement DSM-5

Uncomplicated bereavement is normal grief. One might experience difficult feelings following the loss of a loved one, but within weeks to months, they are able to return to normal life again. The symptoms of uncomplicated grief may resemble those of a major depressive episode or even a physical disease

If someone’s disabling grief persists for longer than 6 months to a year, as it does in about 10% of cases, it might instead be considered an adjustment disorder or prolonged grief disorder (PGD), also known as complicated grief. 

Uncomplicated Bereavement vs. Prolonged Grief Disorder

Most people can effectively deal with the loss of a loved one with the help of family, friends, and their personal belief systems. Their grieving process may include feelings of sadness, anger, and guilt, as well as insomnia and lack of appetite. However, others have a more difficult time processing this degree of loss in the long term and find it impossible to continue life as they knew it — these individuals might have prolonged grief disorder.

In addition to the above risk factors, the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one as well as the grieving person’s relationship with the lost individual can both have a major effect on how one handles the loss. For example, it may be particularly hard for an individual to process an unexpected or sudden death, or a suicide, just as it is extraordinarily difficult for a child to grieve the loss of a parent, a spouse to grieve the loss of their partner, and a parent to grieve the loss of a child, including through miscarriage.

Symptoms of Prolonged Grief Disorder DSM-5

To receive a diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder as an adult, the loss must have occurred at least a year ago — and for children and adolescents, at least 6 months ago. Additionally, the individual must have experienced at least three of the following symptoms nearly every day for the last month or longer:

  • Disrupted identity
  • A feeling of disbelief about the death
  • Avoiding reminders that the individual has passed
  • Intense emotional pain directly related to the loss
  • Trouble getting back to normal life
  • Numbness
  • Feeling that life is meaningless
  • Loneliness and detachment from others

Those at a greater risk of developing prolonged grief disorder (PGD) include those who have a history of mental health issues. And for those who have suffered from a substance use disorder, bereavement may be a trigger—this loss could potentially increase their risk of relapsing.

Treating Uncomplicated Bereavement 

Grief is a difficult, yet necessary and unavoidable part of life. When we grieve, we illustrate the degree of our love for the person lost. We can also learn to continue on with our lives while preserving the memories and legacy of our loved ones. Grief work can look different for everyone but might include: separating oneself from the person who died, learning how to readjust to a world without the individual, and working to create new relationships. 

Unfortunately, some of us are left more broken than others and need some extra care and guidance to heal from the pain of losing a loved one. In such cases, individuals can seek professional help through grief counseling or therapy. Grief counseling helps the bereaved manage their reactions to the loss, without letting go of their loved one. This type of therapy can do the following:

  • Psychoeducate about the normal stages of grieving
  • Encourage the individual to talk about the loss and express their emotions 
  • Identify coping issues and recommend more productive pathways
  • Help the bereaved shift focus from the deceased individual to their own life
  • Provide regular emotional support

Targeted grief treatment is different from depression treatment, and evidence suggests that the former is more effective in helping bereaved individuals. Depression tends to be more of a “free-floating,” nonspecific sadness, whereas grief is characterized by preoccupation with a particular person. 

3 Popular Movies That Tackle the Difficult Subject of Loss and Grief

P.S. I Love You”: In this film, the main character Holly loses her husband and has an extremely difficult time dealing with his death. The movie follows her as she searches for and discovers 10 messages that her late husband left behind. These messages, along with the undying love of her friends and family, help Holly come to terms with the loss.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”: This movie, which is based on a renowned novel of the same name, follows a young boy as he journeys through New York City to find a lock—a lock for a key left behind by his dad, who died in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11. Unsure how to deal with his grief and loss, Oskar obsesses over finding this lock but finally learns to confront his feelings with the help of all the New York City residents he meets.

Marley and Me”: The movie that made even the toughest people tear up—this film is based on an autobiography of the same name, which follows a family as they maneuver through life with a crazy Labrador Retriever, Marley. By the end of it, the family has experienced significant ups and downs, but they have to face the hardest part yet in the closing scene: the loss of Marley. The kids draw pictures and write letters to Marley, which they bury with him in the backyard, and the parents reflect on the memories that began 13 years ago. This reminiscing ultimately helps the family come to terms with Marley’s death and their enormous loss.