When Should I Seek Professional Help For My Grief?

When Should I Seek Professional Help For My Grief?

By Wesley Gallagher

Grief is a normal, healthy emotion experienced after loss, and not just death. Grief can come in the wake of any traumatic event, major life change or significant loss.1 Loss of a loved one in the form of death or severing of relationship, major financial or material losses, even loss of a pet or a major national tragedy can result in a grieving process.

While there are certain experiences and emotions associated with grieving, everyone will experience loss differently based on their unique personalities, backgrounds, mental health, support systems and general circumstances.2 However, it’s important to know what healthy grieving looks like and when it might be time to seek outside help to overcome grief.

What’s Normal When It Comes to Grief?

Woman looking at late husband's pictureGrief encompasses a range of emotions, and the process of overcoming grief can be long and winding. While not everyone will experience all of these emotions, there are certain aspects of grief that are expected and normal.

Common emotions during the grieving process include sadness, anger, guilt, fear, denial, depression and numbness.1 You may feel detachment from family or friends, less interest in activities and socialization, or a sense of withdrawal or lack of productivity. You may experience physical effects like difficulty sleeping, fatigue or changes in appetite. You might even experience seemingly strange symptoms like irregular heartbeat and hearing the voice of the deceased.2 All of these experiences are considered normal.

Social worker and therapist Sally K. Connolly stresses the importance of facing grief head on by acknowledging that something traumatic has happened that has profoundly affected you.1 While a phase of denial or disbelief is perfectly normal, eventual acceptance is a necessary step in the process. Healthy grief has a function, allowing you to identify, acknowledge, feel and integrate your loss. Paradoxically, you could be doing your best when you feel the worst, as the range of emotions you’re experiencing points to progression through the healthy grieving process.2

Another thing to keep in mind is that there is no set timeline for grieving. Again, everyone’s experiences are different. The important thing about a healthy grieving process is that eventually, you regain a sense of normalcy and acceptance of what has happened.3

When Might It Be Time to Seek Outside Help?

Grieving is a long and rocky journey, but it should eventually lead to a gradual reduction of symptoms and acceptance of your loss.3 Be sure you’re taking care of yourself during the grieving process by getting enough sleep, exercise and nourishment, as well as sufficient social support.3 There are certain signs to watch out for that may point to the need for outside assistance in your grieving process.

While outside help is always beneficial, it may be necessary if you experience symptoms of complicated grief. Complicated grief develops over several months and usually isn’t diagnosed unless symptoms continue at least six months after the loss, because many of the symptoms are simply heightened or extended symptoms of normal grief.3

Here are some symptoms to look for: continued sleep disturbances, significant weight loss or gain, inhibited or absent grief, prolonged hostility and aggression, panic attacks and irrational fears, constant yearning for what was lost, progressive isolation, self-destructive behavior, prolonged avoidance of tasks reminiscent of what was lost and continued loss of interest in activities. If you struggle consistently from any of these and your grief doesn’t seem to be improving, you might be experiencing complicated grief. Studies suggest that complicated grief is associated with clinical depression, suicidal thoughts and actions, substance abuse and cardiovascular issues, so it should be taken seriously.3

A grief counselor or therapist can help you work through and move past grief, and support groups can help by allowing you to relate to other people who understand your situation and can give you advice on how to cope. You may also find that writing about your loss is therapeutic.1

Certain factors increase your risk of complicated grief, such as sudden or traumatic loss, being female, limited social support, losing someone with whom your relationship was complicated and experiencing multiple losses.

Be on the lookout for signs of clinical depression, which is another possible consequence of grief. Chronic physical complaints, irritability, generalized feelings of guilt, a pervading sense of doom, chronic emptiness or despair, constant feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness and loss of self-esteem are all possible signs of depression. If your feelings and reactions relate to all facets of your life and not just the specific loss, depression may be the culprit. Depression can lead to other health issues, so you’ll want to seek professional help as soon as you suspect it.3

Your Grief Is Your Own

Whatever your grief looks like, remember that it will be unique to your personality and circumstances, and it won’t necessarily look like others’ grief. That’s okay. The important thing is that you allow yourself to grieve and find the support you need to remain healthy throughout the grieving process.

1 Rodriguez, Diana. “Coping With Grief: How to Handle Your Emotions.” Everyday Health, May 21, 2009.

2Healthy vs. Unhealthy Grief.” Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association, May 18, 2016.

3Change, Loss and Grief: Are Your Reactions Unhealthy?” Sharecare, Accessed October 11, 2017.