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Exaggerated Grief Explained: What It Is and How It’s Expressed

Gabrielle Applebury
Woman crying very upset

Exaggerated grief, also known as persistent complex bereavement disorder, is a formal mental health diagnosis that encompasses grief related symptoms that feel debilitating and last every day for at least six months post loss. Exaggerated grief can be incredibly painful to experience and can leave the individual feeling stuck within their grieving process.

Exaggerated Grief

Exaggerated grief may be referred to as persistent complex bereavement disorder, complicated grief, and overwhelming grief, however the formal diagnosis is persistent complex bereavement disorder.

What Is Exaggerated Grief?

Exaggerated grief, now referred to as persistent complex bereavement disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual V, refers to a cluster of symptoms that manifest as a reaction to experiencing loss.

Exaggerated Grief Definition

Exaggerated grief refers to a group of grief symptoms that persist in high intensity for at least six months after a loss is experienced and with an individual also experiencing difficulty with acts of daily living and functioning.

Signs and Symptoms of Exaggerated Grief

Diagnostic criteria for persistent complex bereavement disorder:

  • Yearning for the deceased individual
  • Hyper focus on the deceased individual and the circumstances surrounding their death
  • Strong desire to be with the deceased individual again and join them
  • Pervasive thoughts about life being unfair or pointless without the deceased individual present
  • Feeling intensely lonely
  • Feeling numb regarding the loss
  • Avoiding triggers associated with the loss
  • Feeling a prolonged sense of shock regarding the loss

While the diagnostic criteria for persistent complex bereavement disorder may sound similar to a grief experience in general, the difference is that PCBD persists at a similar intensity for longer than six months after the loss has occurred and renders and individual feeling incapacitated in terms of acts of daily living versus experiencing some symptom relief over time. Individuals diagnosed with PCBD, may also experience symptoms of depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and substance abuse disorder.

Examples of Exaggerated Grief

Persistent complex bereavement disorder may be triggered by:

  • Multiple losses within a short time frame, also known as cumulative grief
  • The loss of a best friend
  • The loss of a partner
  • The loss of a child
  • A miscarriage

Those who experience symptoms of persistent complex bereavement disorder may not feel ready to process their thoughts and emotions out of fear of losing their connection to the deceased individual. They may also experience guilt in processing the loss and beginning to feel as if they are readjusting to their new normal.

How Is Grief Expressed?

Grief is expressed in a variety of ways and can be influenced by one's social and cultural atmosphere. Grief may be expressed outwardly, inwardly, or a combination of both.

What Is a Grief Response?

Individuals respond to grief in a variety of ways. Some responses may include:

  • An array of emotions including denial, shock, anger, and sadness
  • Feeling numb
  • Distancing oneself from others
  • No longer participating in activities that were once enjoyed
  • Avoiding grief related triggers
  • Having thoughts about the deceased individual
  • Experiencing nightmares about the loss
  • Having difficulty with acts of daily living
  • Self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol
  • Having difficulty with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in appetite

Overwhelming Grief

Experiencing symptoms of exaggerated grief can be overwhelming and leave you feeling completely incapacitated. If you are experiencing symptoms of persistent complex bereavement disorder, there are healthy ways to process your emotions and thoughts when you feel ready to do so. If you are experiencing thoughts of self harm or harming others, be sure to connect with a crisis line right away and consider connecting with a therapist for long-term support.

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Exaggerated Grief Explained: What It Is and How It’s Expressed