Complicated Grief

Lesson objective:

Grief can turn into complex grief. This lesson outlines the complex grief, the specific areas of the brain that are active during this new form of grief, and how it could lead to certain behaviors such as addiction.

Grief is complicated. 

Grief, when prolonged for more than at least six months, may turn into what is called complicated grief, also called prolonged grief. Complicated grief often begins to interfere with daily functioning. 

Complicated grief is often felt as intense longing for the deceased, similar to the yearning or craving a drug addict may feel when they are trying to quit using the drug, or the craving a smoker might feel when trying to stop smoking. 

In complicated grief, life without the deceased can feel devoid of any pleasure, and you may begin to imagine the deceased. You anticipate seeing lost loved ones in a crowd, or you wait for them at home.


The desire to stay connected becomes almost obsessive in these cases, and rightfully so, as complicated grief activates activity in the nucleus accumbens, a brain region associated with pleasure, rewards, and addiction and that produces dopamine. 

Grief, in this sense, can actually feel pleasurable, as reminiscing and thinking about one’s loved ones brings pleasure paired with intense, high levels of emotional pain, sadness, anxiety and guilt. 

In some way, the pain and longing associated with loss becomes addictive.

The traumatic death of a loved one can cause or contribute to PTSD, just as any trauma.

In some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder related to the death of a loved one can be triggered years after the initial event. Small reminders of the deceased—seeing their favorite candy in the grocery store or hearing their favorite song on the radio—can trigger the onset of PTSD years after they have passed away.

It is important to recall that any case of PTSD should be discussed with a medical professional.