Complicated Grief

Losing a loved one is always hard. Feelings like sadness, numbness, or anger are a crucial part of the healing process. But when these emotions don’t resolve on their own, they can prevent you from leading a full life. Fortunately, there are ways to break through your grief.

Please note that it is not recommended to use this course without a therapist who has training and experience in the treatment of complicated grief.

Kelty’s Key recognizes the work of the Center for Complicated Grief, Columbia University, New York, NY, which was a resource for this course.

What is Complicated Grief?

When grief does not pass naturally over time, it can stop you from enjoying life.
What is Complicated Grief Unit Guide

When someone we love dies, we experience a sense of loss. This grieving period is a normal process of life. But sometimes, grief does not resolve on its own over time. Complicated grief can affect your ability to function. Intense longings and unwanted thoughts can stop you from living fully. But there are ways to move forward. You can learn new skills that can help you resolve your grief.

  • The Facts
  • Understanding Complicated Grief
  • The Symptoms
  • Recovery


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Audio Tip
Why grief is a necessary process.

The Facts

It is natural to feel pain after a significant loss. Grief is a sign that we have lost someone important. Without it, a person can’t come to terms with the massive change that death brings to their life. These feelings can bubble to the surface later on, or come out in other ways. If you lose more than one person in your life, unresolved grief can accumulate. You can end up grieving multiple deaths at once. In this situation, processing loss is even more difficult. Although grief is painful and disruptive, we need it. It is healthy and a natural process.

For some people, grief does not resolve on its own. Instead, you might find that you get stuck in feelings of yearning and hopelessness. If these emotions continue for more than 6 months, you may have complicated grief. About 7-10 percent of people will experience complicated grief. While you may feel isolated, you are not alone.

Audio Tip
The difference between grief and complicated grief.

Understanding Complicated Grief

You may wonder why complicated grief has affected you and not someone else. Most likely, you were very attached to the person who died. Your connection was probably deep and long-lasting. They may have given you a sense of safety and meaning. When a bond like this gets shaken by death, it can feel like your world has been turned upside-down. You might think that your life has no purpose without the person who died. If your sense of self-worth is attached to your loved one, you may be unable to accept the death and let go.

While complicated grief can happen anytime, some deaths are more likely to bring it about. These include unexpected tragedies, suicides, or the death of a child. Untimely deaths often take longer to process and resolve. For this reason, complicated grief becomes more likely in these cases.

Symptoms of Complicated Grief

Complicated grief can affect you in many ways. It can change how you think, what you feel, and what you do.


It might feel like you can't stop thinking about your loved one or how they died. Life might not seem worth living without them. You may not be able to accept the reality of your loss. Thoughts about yourself and the world might become more and more negative over time. You might question who you are or how you'll survive without your loved one.


It is common to feel an intense longing or yearning for the person that passed. You might feel overwhelmed, shocked, or numb. Reminders of your loved one, in life or death, can cause powerful emotional reactions.


Difficulty adapting to your new life is a significant challenge in complicated grief. You may start avoiding things that remind you of your loved one. You might write off certain situations, places, or even people. Withdrawing yourself from activities and choosing to be alone is also common. Some people find it hard to get out of bed, take care of themselves, or get things done at work or school.


Complicated grief does not have any specific physical symptoms associated with it. But many people do find they suffer from an ache in the area of their heart. When you are at your limit emotionally, you may feel nauseous or exhausted.

Note that physical changes to your body may not be from grief itself. After losing a loved one, we recommend seeing your family doctor for a checkup. It's important to make sure your symptoms are from grieving and not something else.


Recovering From Grief

While you may feel eternally stuck in grief, all is not lost. There are ways to help you manage complicated grief and move past it.


There are many types of therapy to help you through complicated grief. Kelty's Key uses cognitive behavioral therapy. This approach teaches you how to face your grief and work towards resolving it. You'll learn skills to help you move forward and re-engage with life.


You can't cure grief with medicine. Still, medication can help you get past some of the depressive symptoms that may get in the way. They may be the stepping stone you need to better engage in and complete therapy.


Well Done. You’re on Your Way.

You’ve taken the first step and learned about complicated grief. Knowledge is important. Understanding what grief is and how it works will help you moving forward.

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Understanding Your Grief

Believing that you are always in pain can keep you stuck in grief.
Understanding Your Grief Unit Guide

Complicated grief can take over your life. It might seem like there is nothing but darkness and terrible imagery. To resolve your grief, you need to believe that you can get through this. Understanding your day-to-day lows and noticing your highs is a great first step.

  • Supports
  • Grief Records
  • Triggers
  • Responses


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Audio Tip
Why social support is important in recovery from complicated grief.

Don’t Go It Alone

Moving through complicated grief is hard work. It can be emotionally and physically exhausting. With so many challenges ahead, it is essential to have people around you for support.

Who we turn to for help changes throughout our lives. After a loss, you may be surprised by sudden shifts. Were you shocked when the people you thought you could depend on disappeared from your life? Perhaps they didn't understand what's taking you "so long" to "get over it." Maybe they didn't know what to say or do. Sometimes conflict or blame can surface after a death.

Did people you had not expected step-up to offer their support? Have you found any groups or meet-ups helpful? Finding people who can be there for you, without being critical, is crucial at this time. You shouldn't have to go it alone. Supportive people will help you benefit from what you are learning and make it through.

Who can you currently reach out to for support? Try to name 3 people or groups:

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Audio Tip
How social support may change after a significant loss.

Reach Out

You may have experienced friends or family pulling away from you after your loss. They might not know what to say or misunderstand your actions. However, it is also possible that you are distancing yourself. You might find it hard to interact with your loved ones now that your life has changed so much.

It's important to recognize this behavior and try to reverse it. Isolating yourself will only make you feel more alone than you already do.

Reaching out might be as simple as letting certain people know that you need them. Of course, just because it's simple doesn't mean it's easy. Reaching out takes a lot of effort when you are in grief. When you manage to ask for help, give yourself credit. It's an accomplishment.

Accepting help can also be hard. It can be particularly challenging if you have been independent and self-reliant. Try to be open. It's ok to need support at this time.

Here are your 3 supports. How can you reach out to them this week?

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Audio Tip
Why it’s important to monitor the intensity of grief throughout the day.

Always Hurting

Grief is overwhelming. You probably feel like you are in anguish every minute of every day. Does it feel like you’ll never be happy? As though your body and mind are no longer able to be at peace? Many people start to believe that life will never get better. If you think this way, you’ll feel hopeless. It will be hard to stay motivated and work through your grief.

The power of grief is intense, but it’s not at full blast all the time. It ebbs and flows throughout the day. Moments of distress probably jump out at you. But times of neutrality or happiness might pass unnoticed. To believe that you can make it out of grief, you must pay attention to the fluctuations in your emotions. When you notice that you can feel neutral, or even half-decent, you’ll become more confident. You’ll feel more assured that you can move forward and embrace life again.

Grief Records

An excellent tool to track changes in your emotions is a grief record. Take a few minutes several times a day to write down what was happening and how distressed you felt. Rate the distress from 0 (none) to 10 (high). Different people experience the pain of grief in different ways. A 10 on your scale might be overwhelming panic or rage. On the other hand, it might be a feeling of numbness like you’re on autopilot.

It’s also helpful to track what made your pain change. Did an image come to you that made your panic even worse? Maybe a thought gave you some comfort and helped calm you.

A grief record is most beneficial when you use it several times a day for about a month. It will help you see a fuller picture of your grief and its intensity. You’ll start to collect evidence that you can feel emotions other than pain. What makes your grief more or less intense will also become apparent.

Take a minute and plan how you’ll use a grief record. Do you have a small notebook? Some people use their phone as it’s always on hand. Below is an example of what your grief record might look like:

Date / Time Situation Level of Distress What changed distress? Increased or decreased distress?
March 26
10:30 PM
Trying to fall asleep and the thought of my son in the ground came into my mind. 8 The more I thought about him being cold the worse it got. Could not sleep for another six hours.
March 26
11:00 PM
Trying to fall asleep and the thought of my son in the ground came into my mind. 7 Thought of him being with my Dad and my sister and they were comforting him. Distress went down a little.
March 27th
8:00 AM
Saw TV news item with happy child my son’s age. 6 Sharp emotional pain at first which subsided a bit when I called my friend Jill and talked to her for 15 minutes.
March 27th
5:30 PM
My neighbor came by to introduce me to her new puppy. 0 I noticed after my neighbor left I started to feel some distress again but felt none while I was holding the puppy. I wasn’t aware I had breaks in my emotional pain.
March 28th
9:30 AM
I saw a parent with her son and I got very angry. It is unfair! 7 I remembered that I had my son for longer than some parents get and I felt a small amount better. Later I started to think that it is unfair again and I got angrier and angrier.
Audio Tip
How therapists help clients work with triggers.


As you use your grief record, you might notice some patterns. There may be places, situations, or even people that open the floodgates to your grief. These are called triggers. A trigger might be something closely tied to your loved one, like a birthday, or something more abstract, like a smell. Either way, triggers are linked to memories and feelings about the person who has died. They can interrupt your day and send you into a tailspin of pain.

You'll know something is a trigger because you'll have a strong reaction to it. For example, you might feel deep sorrow, anger, or nausea. Triggers make you feel terrible. Worrying about whether you'll come across a trigger can be draining. Naturally, many people deal with triggers by trying to avoid them.

But it's useful to take note of your triggers. They can help you pinpoint sensitive issues or emotions that are keeping you stuck in grief. Recognizing these problematic areas is the first step to moving past them. You can find ways to cope.

Take a minute to think of 3 triggers. As you continue working on your grief record, you may notice more.

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Responses to Triggers

It can also be helpful to write down how you react to different triggers. A trigger might cause you to experience intense emotions. Other times you might feel a physical reaction in your body.

Here are some examples:

Trigger My Response
The anniversary of my son’s death. Shortness of breath all day. Non-stop sobbing. I thought I was going crazy.
Seeing a group of school children. My stomach grabbed and I got a pain in my chest.
Mother’s Day talked about in a group of my friends. I felt like I was in a pit. Like a sense of doom. So alone. I wanted to run out of there.
Pancake smell. Tearful.
Walking into the hospital to visit my Mom. I smelled blood. I lost my way even though I knew the building layout. I got dizzy and had to sit down.
Emergency vehicle siren. The first time I heard a siren I vomited. Now I freeze.

What are some responses you have experienced when triggered?

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William's Story

William's son David died while competing in a sporting activity 9 months ago. Since then, William has felt like he is consumed by grief every day, all day. The pain seems like it is never-ending. He feels it at work, at home, in the morning, and at night. William is not sure how much more of this he can take. He's starting to question whether he'll ever feel anything but pain ever again.

William's therapist suggested he try keeping track of his daily emotions in a grief record. William thought this sounded like a waste of time. He already knew how he was feeling and why. As a favor to his wife, he decided to give it a go. The record doesn't take much time, so why not?

After a few days of tracking his grief, William noticed that his level of distress actually varied in the day. At times the pain was intense and long-lasting. Other times it felt duller and was short-lived. Surprisingly, there were also moments when he felt neutral or even a little happy. He felt best during several evenings he spent with his brother. On the other hand, William noticed that watching sports on TV always made him really upset.

William kept up his grief record for 4 weeks. He saw that his grief came and went. Sometimes it was very intense, and sometimes not. William felt a bit of relief, knowing that his body was still able to feel something aside from pain. He felt less afraid of his grief and a little more confident that he could work through it.

Good Job! You’re Ready to Start a Grief Record

Download Your Worksheet

Continue working on your grief record over the next week. It should only take a few minutes a day. Track your emotions and keep your eyes open for new triggers. As you gain evidence that your pain is not always at full blast, you'll become more assured that you can work through this.


Congratulations! You're Tracking Your Grief

Keep working on your grief record and exploring the ups and downs of your grief. Remember to reach out for support, even if it’s hard.

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Re-Telling Your Story

Facing a painful memory can help you move through grief.
Re-Telling Your Story Unit Guide

The memory of how your loved one died might be a traumatic one. You might be afraid to think about it or see the images that come with the story. But processing this memory is an essential step in resolving your grief. Repetition of the story can help you come to terms with the death of your loved one.

  • Recording the Story
  • Listening to the Story
  • Rewards
  • Fears and Expectations


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Audio Tip
How revisiting the story of a loved one’s death can lower the intensity of your emotions.

Emotional Memories

As you begin to notice the daily ups and downs of your grief, it is also important to process your memories.

For many people, remembering the moment you found out your loved one died is traumatic. This memory is one of the hardest to process in grief. Thinking about how your loved one died might bring up intense emotions. They might feel just as strong as when you first learned of the death. While time has passed, and you may know that the death occurred, emotionally, you haven’t accepted it. You are stuck in the shock that hit when the death took place. It is tough to move through grief when you are still in this state of emotional trauma.

Re-telling your story can help you process things on an emotional level. This exercise involves recording your story and listening to it over several weeks. With time, the emotions surrounding your memory will soften. In a sense, you get used to the story. You can become more comfortable talking and thinking about that time in your life. Re-telling the story is a gentle way of coming to terms with the death of your loved one.

Rewards for Hard Work

Before you set out to retell your story, you should know that this is not easy. It may be one of the hardest things you ever do. For this reason, it’s essential to reward yourself every time you listen to your story. Balancing the difficult work you are doing with some positivity or comfort can help grief to move along.

It’s best to have a list of rewards ready to go before starting the exercise. You can write them down or even put them on pieces of paper in a jar where you can see them.

Try to think of 5 to 10 possible rewards. They should be things you value and find uplifting or comforting. You don’t have to go big. Small things that help you feel a little bit better are perfect rewards. Everyone’s list will be unique. A cup of tea, a walk in the woods, or your favorite TV show might work. Others might prefer soft sheets, hiring a cleaning company, or a warm dessert.

Take a moment and think of some rewards. What might give you some comfort after a tough exercise?

Fears and Expectations

We know that re-telling your story can be painful and might be scary. You might worry that you can’t handle the intense emotions that come with revisiting. Perhaps you’re anxious that the feelings will never go away once you let them out. It may surprise you to learn that the opposite is true. If you keep using the exercise regularly, the emotions will soften. Reach out to your support network if you need more confidence to try the activity.

Re-telling your story will get less painful the more you listen and repeat it. However, no one expects that this story will ever be easy for you to tell. As you process your loss, your feelings will ease, but your connection to your loved one will remain.

Audio Tip
the steps of re-telling your story.

How to Tell Your Story

Re-telling the story of your loved one’s death takes about 5 to 10 minutes a day.

It’s best to make your recording using your computer, an old phone, or a tape recorder. If your phone is the easiest option, that’s alright too. Just try to imagine setting a password on the file after you finish. You don’t want to feel like you are carrying the story around with you at all times.

Choose how and where you’d like to record yourself and follow these steps:

  1. Set your device to record. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  2. Rate your level of distress from 0 (none) to 10 (high).
  3. Answer the question:
      What is the story of the moment you found out that (name) died?
      Where were you? Who was around you? What time of the day or night was it?
      Close your eyes as you tell the story. Create a vivid image in your mind. Your re-telling should last about 5 to 10 minutes. Stop when you have finished or when the timer goes off.
  4. Open your eyes and rate from 0 to 10 how distressed you felt with the re-telling.
  5. Close your eyes and imagine that you are rewinding the story on your device. Visualize yourself clicking rewind and see the recording going back to the beginning. Now imagine storing your recording somewhere safe. A secure folder on your computer could work. This step gives your mind a break from the intense feelings that may have come up during the re-telling.
  6. Pick a reward from your list and give it to yourself. Try to open yourself to feelings of enjoyment.
  7. Listen to the story you recorded each day for the next week. Record your level of distress before and after you listen. Reward yourself after each time.

After a week has passed, create a new recording using steps 1 to 7 again. You’ll continue this exercise for several weeks.

Miriam's Story

Miriam's husband Jake died tragically a year ago. Since then, she has felt stuck in grief. She yearns for Jake. Miriam still feels intense emotions about his death, and can't bear to think about it. But sometimes, she can't get it out of her mind either. Miriam does not want to kill herself but desperately wants to be with Jake.

Miriam's therapist explains that she needs to come to terms with the death of her husband emotionally. Processing the memory of when she learned of Jake's death will help. To begin, Miriam will work on re-telling the story. This exercise involves recording the story of Jake's death and listening to it once a day.

The thought of talking about her husband's death scares Miriam to the core. But with the support of her best friend, Miriam gives it a try. The first recording is quite painful. Miriam talks about the phone call she received. How the person on the other end described the accident and the numbness she felt. Miriam had never spoken of these events out loud before. A phone call the next day from her therapist helped her to feel supported.

Miriam listened to her recording each day for a week. She felt reassured that while the emotions were intense, they did calm down after a while. After 5 weeks of recording and listening to her story, Miriam found that talking about Jake's death was more comfortable. She knew it would never be an easy topic, but in some ways, Miriam felt some distance now. The story of Jake's death no longer caused the emotional reaction it did before.

Good Work! You're Ready to Start Re-Telling Your Story

Download Your Worksheet

Re-telling your story is one of the hardest things you may ever take on. We've included a worksheet with the steps to help you keep going over the upcoming weeks. You are working hard. Remember to reward yourself.


Well Done! You're Ready to Face a Difficult Memory

Keep listening to your recording every day for the next week. At the start of a new week, re-record your story and start again. Work with a trained professional to continue processing your memories on an emotional level.

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Facing Your Grief

Trying to avoid pain can keep you stuck in a cycle of grief.
Facing Your Grief Unit Guide

Grief can hit you emotionally and physically. A reminder of your loved one or their death can cause a lot of suffering. It’s natural to want to avoid this pain. You may have started to dodge places, people, or things that trigger your grief. The difficulty with this plan is that avoidance tends to grow. You can become more isolated, making your grief harder to work through. An important part of your healing is learning to expose yourself gently to your triggers. Facing distressing situations will allow you to reconnect with the world around you.

  • Avoidance
  • Exposure
  • A Series of Goals
  • Reward Yourself


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Audio Tip
Which situations people with complicated grief tend to avoid and why.

Understanding Avoidance

Grief can be incredibly painful. Reminders of your loved one might make you feel like you are in agony. The suffering and hurt can feel like more than you can bear. Grief can also hit you physically. You might feel heavy, achy, or like someone punched you in the gut.

It’s human nature to try to avoid things that feel bad or uncomfortable. While in grief, your pain may be brought about by anything that makes you think of your loved one. To avoid this pain, you may start to hide away from certain people, places, or events. These triggers, which make you think of your loved one, can be anything. It might be your loved one’s favorite restaurant, their family members, their birthday, or the place where they died.

Avoiding triggers can seem like a good strategy. But in the long run, it does more harm than good. Over time, you can become more and more sensitive to any reminders of your loss. For example, if you initially avoided the graveyard, you may find that now you steer clear of that entire neighborhood. You may start to avoid more and more situations, as your world becomes smaller and smaller. In this way, you can end up spending most of your time alone, physically and emotionally. This loneliness will only perpetuate your grief.

Audio Tip
How exposure can lead to healing.


One of the big problems with avoidance is that it plays up the thought that “I can’t.” You might feel like you can’t handle going to a place where you have memories with your loved one. Or that you can’t function out in the “normal” world. Exposure is a gentle way to start showing yourself that you can. The idea is to ease yourself back into situations you’ve been avoiding. With time, you can gain confidence that you will be able to face reminders of your loved one without becoming overwhelmed.

Going out of your way to expose yourself to the pain of grief might sound crazy. You might remember being told in the early days of your loss to focus on self-care. Don’t overwhelm yourself. Get help from others and concentrate on the basics like eating healthy, getting rest, and personal hygiene. This advice works well if your grief resolves on its own. You’d naturally start to sleep and function better and re-enter your social, work, or school life.

Things change when grief holds on for a long time. Self-protection and avoidance behaviors start to become a barrier. They prevent healing rather than help it move along. When you find yourself in this situation, exposure is the best solution. It can help you break the cycle of avoidance, isolation, and grief.

Your Difficult Situation

The first step of exposure is to identify something you avoid. It could be an activity you used to do with your loved one. Perhaps you've found that your grief erupts when you spend time with a particular person.

You probably avoid more than one thing that triggers your grief. In that case, start with the one that feels the easiest. For example, you might want to work on looking at a photograph of your loved one before visiting the graveyard.

Name a situation, place, person, or thing you'd like to stop avoiding:

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Feeling Stuck?
Situations:PartiesGoing to the doctorSporting events
Places:RestaurantsBedroom of the deceasedGraveyard
People:Friend of the deceasedFamily of the deceasedOther parents


Audio Tip
How to break up a challenge into manageable steps.

Breaking Up the Challenge

Exposure doesn't mean you have to jump into the deep end. It's better to go slow and ease your way towards your ultimate goal. You have already survived your loss and have been through a lot. Exposure isn't meant to overwhelm you more. It's important to break up your goal into pieces that feel manageable. While you may not always complete your task, having a step-wise plan will help boost your chances. Small successes will motivate you to continue onwards.

If you are unsure how to break your goal down, think about how you could change the conditions to feel better. Consider who you'll do your exercise with, how long you'll do it for, and what time you'll do it. Say your main goal is to attend your daughter's graduation. The ceremony will be at the school you've been avoiding since your son died. You might start building towards this event by:

Difficulty Step
Easiest Looking at a photograph of the school.
Easier Drive past the school with a friend in the car.
Middle Visit the school after the students have left for the day.
Harder Revisit as school lets out, and things are busy with students and parents.
Hardest Attend the graduation ceremony.

Your Goals

My Ultimate Goal:

Write out a few different ways that you can expose yourself to your situation, person, or thing. Start with your most manageable goal and gradually work up to the hardest. If you think your ultimate goal is very hard, then your first step should be at a 1 or 2 level of difficulty. Some challenges may require more than 5 steps.

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Audio Tip
Why rewards are important for people engaged in treatment for complicated grief.

Reward Yourself

As you work through your exposure, it's essential to reward yourself. Don't downplay how hard it can be to face your grief. Acknowledge the hard work you are doing and give yourself credit for taking it on.

Rewarding yourself can also help you through your grief. Many people stop doing pleasurable things after a loss. You might feel guilty -- like you don't deserve to feel good or have fun. Avoiding pleasure can hold you back and keep you stuck in your grief. For this reason, giving yourself small rewards can be doubly helpful.

Think about some rewards you can give yourself as you start to tackle your first challenge. It should be something you'll appreciate. It doesn't matter if other people wouldn't consider it rewarding.

How will you reward yourself for completing your challenge?
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Feeling Stuck?
Doing craftsWatch sportsWear favorite clothes
Listen to new musicBuy new cosmeticsAn hour of me-time
Go to the beachBuy a small gadgetApply cream to hands



Your First Challenge

Good job. You're ready to start planning your first exercise:

Think about trying this task. How much grief do you feel?


When will you do your exercise?

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For how long will you do your exercise?

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Keep Going

Grief comes in waves. You may try to face some of your triggers and then find it too tough. A bad couple of weeks might discourage you and make you want to give up. Life, in general, might get in the way. A nasty cold or other obstacles may put a stop to your exposure. These events should be no surprise. Life rarely occurs on a straight course. Be easy on yourself when things come up that interfere with your goals.

Take the time you need and then come back to your exposure. The important thing is to keep trying. And don’t forget to reward yourself.

Daisy's Story

Daisy's partner Blair died suddenly last year. Since then, Daisy has not been able to work. She's gradually stopped seeing friends altogether and avoids anything that reminds her of Blair. Daisy can't handle any reminders of their former life together. She spends most of her time alone at home. Daisy wonders if she will ever "get better."

Daisy decided to try to deal with her grief, even if feeling better did not seem possible. Her therapist recommended she start doing exposure exercises. Daisy wanted to work towards hanging a picture of Blair in her living room. She wondered if she'd be able to handle the pain that came when she looked at pictures of Blair. Daisy was sure it would be too overwhelming. Nonetheless, she dug out the box of photos that she'd been avoiding.

Later that night, Daisy opened the box. The next day, she put her hand in and took out a picture of Blair from before they met. She held it in her hand. It hurt, but it didn't overwhelm her. Next, Daisy held a photo of the 2 of them working on their garden together. Another day, Daisy found a picture from their last holiday. She held it and showed it to a friend. It wasn't easy, but it was not as painful as Daisy assumed. It felt good to share her love for her partner.

Daisy practiced holding Blair's picture about 20 times before it got easier. She was able to honor her love for Blair by putting her favorite photo in a new frame she bought for this purpose. Daisy was proud to see Blair's picture in her living room. It warmed her heart to see the face she loved as she moved through her home.

Well Done! You're Ready to Start Facing Your Grief

Download Your Worksheet

It takes courage to face things that trigger your grief. Take it slow and break down your goals into more manageable steps. Don’t forget to give yourself the credit you have earned. Taking on your grief is extremely hard, and you deserve to be rewarded.


Well Done! You're Ready to Try Exposure

Keep practicing your exposure. With time you can stop avoiding reminders of your loved one and reconnect with life.

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I’ve got an online therapist:
I’m working on my own:


Remembering the full humanness of your loved one can help you feel at peace.
Resolution Unit Guide

Grief and death often skew how we remember. You might only think about the good side of your loved one. They might seem like they were perfect. Like they had no faults or shortcomings. But part of being human is to be imperfect. Remembering your loved one as a full person will help you resolve your grief. Imagining conversations with them can let you work through what was left unsaid.

  • Idealization
  • Both Sides
  • Having a Conversation
  • Reflection


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Audio Tip
Developing a balanced view of the person who died is part of overcoming complicated grief.

Idealizing Your Loved One

Don’t speak ill of the dead. It’s a common expression and a cultural belief. When someone passes away, it’s easy to forget about their imperfections. Especially when you loved them. With a bit of time, you may end up with an idealized version of your loved one. You might only remember the good times. Believing that they were perfect makes it impossible for your grief to resolve. Holding on to this notion can keep you stuck.

To move through your grief, you need to remember your loved one as a full human. That means that they had strengths, but also weak spots. We’re not suggesting that your loved one had a secret dark side. Maybe they left their shoes all over the place or always forgot to put their laundry in the hamper. They may have been quick to anger or kept their emotions bottled up. You might feel like it’s wrong to say anything ill of your loved one. You may feel guilty, but it’s important to have a balanced view.

Both Sides

Take a minute and think about your loved one and their characteristics. Think about both sides. The things you loved about them and the traits that were a challenge. Holding a picture or a treasured object might help you complete the exercise.

What are some of the positive qualities of the person who died?

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What are some qualities of the person who died that are not positive?

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Feeling Stuck?
GullibleLiked to gossipMessy



Good and Bad Times

Now think about the times you spent together. The good times and the not-so-good times.

Describe some of your pleasant times and memories:

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What are some of the hard times you spent together?

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After spending a bit of time thinking about both sides of your loved one, how do you feel? Take a moment and write down what you noticed. Did this exercise help you to balance your view of your loved one?

What are your reflections about the exercise you just completed?

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Audio Tip

Having a Conversation

You may have questions that you never got to ask your loved one. There may have been things left unsaid that still cross your mind. Have you caught yourself talking to your loved one? If you have, you're not crazy! There's actually research that shows that imagining conversations can be beneficial. Feeling curious about your loved one and their death is normal. It's entirely to be expected.

An imaginary conversation might feel weird, but it can help you deal with unanswered questions. To try it, you'll speak for both yourself and your loved one. You can tell your loved one about your day or ask them why they had to die when they did. No topic is off-limits.

Here's what a snippet might look like:

You: Why did you die? Why couldn't I have more time with you?

Them: I wanted to stay with you, but I was too sick. My biggest wish was to have more time with you. I am so sorry to leave you. If I could change it, I would.

You: I REALLY miss you.

Them: I knew you would, and I am sorry you are hurting. You are going to be okay. You are stronger than you know.


Your Conversation

Let's try a quick conversation. Imagine that death has just occurred, but your loved one can still hear you and talk to you. You'll know what words and expressions they use and what they'd likely say to you if you asked them a question.

Take five minutes to have a conversation with your loved one now.

What was that like for you? Make some notes and share your reflections.

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Keep It Up

Resolving your grief is hard work. You might be feeling guilty for recognizing the imperfections of your loved one. Having an imaginary conversation might have felt weird. But you should feel accomplished. As you see your loved one in a more balanced light, you’ll be able to reach a place of healing. You are doing important work. Well done and keep it up.

Good Job! You're Working Towards Resolving Your Grief

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It’s hard not to idealize someone you care for after they’ve died. Remembering your loved one as a full person will help you come to terms with their death. Imaginary conversations can bring closure to questions left unspoken.


Well Done! You're Moving Forward

Keep working towards seeing both sides of your loved one. This work will help you feel more at peace with your loss.

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Reinvesting in Life

When grief lingers, finding a way to reinvest in your life might seem impossible.
Reinvesting in Life Unit Guide

Loss changes your life, but it doesn’t end it. You can integrate the death of your loved one into your future. Looking inside yourself and discovering your values can help you reinvest in life. Identifying goals in line with what’s important to you can set you up to reconnect.

  • Life After Death
  • Your Values
  • Your Goals
  • A New Future


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Audio Tip

Life After Death

When someone important to you dies, you may think that life will never be the same. You’re right. Life cannot go back to the way it was. But that doesn’t mean that life can never be happy again.

Before your loved one died, you probably had plans for your future. You likely knew what was important to you and how to bring those things into your world. Death can change everything. Not only is your future different from what you expected, but what you value at your core may also have been affected. To move past grief, you need to reconnect with yourself and invest in your future. As you work towards small goals that bring value to your world, it will be easier to see a new life growing.

Identifying Your Values

It's easiest to find meaning in life through our values. They can give us direction in how we want to spend our time and energy. Death teaches us that our life is finite. Experiencing a significant loss can motivate you to decide how you want to spend your time and resources. Determining the values that are most important to you can help you gain clarity about your goals.

Identify the five values that are most important to you:

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Feeling Stuck?
GenerosityHopeInner PeaceKnowledgeOpennessSafety
Self KnowledgePassionPleasurePurposeSuccessSpirituality


Discover New Goals

It is understandable that while dealing with grief, you've given up your goals and dreams. Your life may be quite different now, and your old goals might no longer fit with your sense of purpose. Finding new goals might take some time. Ask yourself, "if a miracle happened right now, and I was at peace with my loss, what goals would I have for my life?" There are no wrong answers. The idea is nothing more than to start thinking about a meaningful future.

Take a look at your values:

What are some ideas of things you could do that would align with these values? Try to brainstorm. Your goals can be small. Once again, there are no wrong answers.

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A New Future

It’s hard to think about a future without your loved one. But setting new goals is a great first step. Identifying your new values can help you zone in on what will make your future life meaningful. As you start to take on some goals, you’ll see that even without your loved one, you are still living your values. You’re continuing to do meaningful things. Feeling like your life has purpose and relevance will help your grief to resolve naturally.

Mateo's Story

After his younger brother died, Mateo gave up his plans for his future. The goals he had for his life no longer seemed important. Mateo resigned himself to just making it through each day. He no longer believed he had a bright future to look forward to.

Mateo's therapist asked him a question. "If you were at peace with your brother's death, what would you want for your future?" Mateo couldn't think of anything. It had been so long since he'd thought about plans for his life. To help Mateo reconnect with himself, his therapist asked him to think about his values.

It took Mateo a while before he could name a few things he knew he valued. Being a helpful and generous part of a community felt meaningful. To make sure his goals would feel worthwhile, Mateo focused on giving back to his community. He decided he'd like to volunteer.

Mateo tried to brainstorm ideas that would help him to become a volunteer. He researched options and settled on a cause he knew his brother would have supported. Mateo contacted a few youth centers, had some interviews and began to help out. Each step of the way, Mateo felt a little more connected to his community. With time, he began to feel like his life had a purpose again.

Well done! You've Started to Set Up Some Goals

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A life without your loved one might feel meaningless now, but it doesn't have to be. With new goals that serve your values, you can work towards a new, but worthwhile, future.


Well Done! You're Moving Towards a New Future

Keep working to accomplish your goals. As you rethink your values, your goals might change. That’s alright. It’s hard work, but it’s possible to reconnect with life after loss.

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I’m working on my own:
Useful Tools


Keep practicing. Download reusable worksheets and audio guides for Complicated Grief.


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