How Does Chronic Grief Work? Definition & Examples


Chronic grief is, unfortunately, sounds like exactly what it is — your grieving doesn't seem to get better with time. It’s when you feel extremely distressed even months or years after you've suffered a loss and the pain doesn't seem to ease. You may not even realize that you're consumed by grief. Even if you're aware of it, you may not know what to do to relieve the intense pain you're experiencing. 

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Coping with your loss may become one of your greatest daily challenges. The most important thing to know is that you’re not alone. You may benefit from the help of a mental health professional or counselor trained to help you.

What is Chronic Grief?

Chronic grief is grief that lasts longer than what is considered a normal grieving period. It happens when acceptance of the loss doesn’t occur, so it’s impossible for you to proceed through the stages of grief.

Chronic grief isn't the same as normal grief that just takes you a little bit longer to work through. In fact, just because you're taking longer to grieve than what experts predict that you will, this doesn’t mean that your grief is "chronic" grief. 

Key difference: You must not have accepted your loved one’s death. If you find it impossible to accept the death of your loved one or any traumatic event that you've gone through, this delays the healing process. You must first accept the loss in order to heal.

» MORE: Our story doesn't end at the grave. Honor your loved one with a free online memorial.

Is it different than complicated grief?

Depending on who you ask, the terms chronic and complicated grief are sometimes used interchangeably. Chronic grief means you have difficulty accepting your loss no matter how hard you try.

Complicated grief, on the other hand, is brought about when you cannot even begin to see how your life has changed after suffering your loss.

Here, you’re in denial and you're stuck living in the past as if your loved one didn't die. To keep up with this charade you've created, you tend to avoid going to the places and doing the things that remind you of your loved one. You begin to live in this perpetual state of denial, even going as far as avoiding others so that you don't have to talk to them about your loss.

Overall, complicated grief keeps you from moving forward and accepting that your life has changed forever. 

Expect to experience some or all of the following with these two types of grief:

  • Intense sadness
  • Trouble functioning
  • Going over and over in your head the same things regarding the death
  • Repeatedly visualizing the day you lost your loved one
  • Reliving the loss
  • Failing to accept that your loved one is not here and is not coming back

How Chronic Grief Works

When you experience loss and suffer from pain and sorrow, in time, you’ll feel the effects of your grief begin to diminish. Grief's stronghold on you will let up and gradually, you'll go back to your life and routine. It may be that your life has now changed, and your routines may be a bit different, but eventually, you'll go back to living your life as close as possible to how it was before.  

For some, grief doesn't work this way. You may find that your grief doesn’t diminish with time and that your pain and suffering feels the same as the first day you suffered your loss. When this happens and you find it difficult to move forward in your grief journey, you’re suffering from complicated or chronic grief. The way this type of grief is expressed can take on any or all of the following forms.

Inability to accept the death

The inability to accept your loved one's death may keep you from healing. This can take on the form of extreme denial and refusal to live life without your loved one.

The longer it takes for you to accept your loved one’s death, the longer it delays healing. You may consider speaking with a grief counselor or reading some books on grief to help you come to terms with your loss.

» MORE: Create a free online memorial. Honor your loved one, share funeral details, and collect memories and tributes.

Pain of loss intensifies

You experience chronic grief when you still feel intense and persistent grief after six months to one year. As the pain of loss intensifies, it becomes more difficult for you to work your way through grief without outside professional help.

A trained counselor will not only know how to console someone but can give advice and therapies to help work through this type of grief. 

Preoccupation with the loss 

When you can’t get the death of your loved one out of your head or keep going through the details over and over in your head, you’re preoccupied with your loss, which makes it nearly impossible to move on with your life.

There are certain therapeutic strategies that have proven effective in getting you past this abnormal preoccupation with the death of your loved one. Talk to your therapist to see what he or she recommends if you are in this stage of the grieving process. 

Avoidance of anything reminding you of your loved one

Avoidance doesn’t mean just not thinking about something or someone.

In this case, you avoid anything and everything that reminds you of your loved one’s death. It means you circumvent the places that you once frequented with your loved one and the things that you used to do together. You learn to do this as a workaround to having to admit to yourself that your loved one is now dead and not coming back. You try and hold on to every bit of hope that your loved one is not dead. 

Bitterness and/or rage

If your grief has turned into anger, it can negatively affect relationships with your loved ones who are still alive. You may not be able to control when you lash out at someone and he or she may not understand the reasons you’re doing it.

It helps to talk about it and perhaps incorporate some grief rituals to help everyone who is suffering the death of your loved one. These rituals are things you can do together to honor the life of your loved one who has died. Everyone can participate and it can be a beautiful way of letting go of some of that anger associated with your loss.

Apathy or giving up

When you no longer care about anything or anyone around you, you are in the apathy stage of chronic grief. Believing that life no longer has meaning or purpose can lead you to feel depressed and you may start having suicidal thoughts. You may feel that no one understands what you are feeling or going through and you begin to wonder what life would be like if you decided to just end it all.

You may not be able to get yourself out of this stage on your own and may need extra support as you grieve your loss. 

Examples of Chronic Grief

Not all types of loss will lead to chronic grief, and it’s not only related to experiencing loss through death. Almost every type of loss can potentially lead to a prolonged period of grief. You may be more prone to it when you have suffered numerous losses in a short amount of time, when you were especially close to your loved one who has died, or when you suffer from unresolved trauma.

Some examples of chronic grief are found below:

  • When you suffer the sudden death of a parent you were overly dependent on in your everyday living. You tend to hold on to your pain and suffering as a way of showing your commitment even after he or she has died.
  • Suffering an unresolved trauma like an assault in which the perpetrator was never apprehended. This type of loss is sometimes not considered the same as losing someone to death. Often, you’ll hear things such as, “Get over it,” “Put it behind you,” or “Forget it and move on with your life.”
  • The birth of a disabled child is related to the loss of the anticipated normal child. You’re unable to resolve your grief because of all the time and attention the child requires. This also leads to unresolved grief because the caregiving usually goes on for a lifetime, with no respite for mourning.

Chronic Grief Can Be Resolved

Not everyone who grieves for an extended time period suffers from chronic grief. Sometimes grieving takes longer because of the special bond you shared with your loved one.

But when you do experience a prolonged grieving period that doesn’t feel normal to you, explore the different types of professional help available to you so you can start to heal. 


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