Tom's Blog

"Complicated Grief"

Posted by Tom Zuba on June 08, 2015 11 Comments

What if I told you that the appropriate, natural, healthy and even healing response when someone you love dearly dies is to kick, scream, roll around on the floor, and foam at the mouth?  Until you no longer have a need to do that. 

Well, it is.

But instead of the kicking and screaming, the rolling and foaming, your doctor will now encourage you to take a pill to “take the edge off of it.”  “No need to feel the pain,” he or she will say, when there’s a little pill for that.

And instead of honoring all the ways that grief expresses itself, many of us have bought into the mythical, iconic images of a graceful, dignified, and somehow-through-her-black-veil, still beautiful Jackie Kennedy navigating her husband’s funeral and burial.  Images that travelled round the world and continue to hold power over us.  By doing so, we’ve unknowingly and unconsciously set ourself up to create pain on top of pain.  It’s now become the American way of doing grief.  Pretending.  Denying.  Repressing. Numbing.  Staying strong.  And sucking it all up.  I call it the old way of doing grief.  Trust me.  It doesn’t work.  I tried it.  My 18-month-old daughter Erin died suddenly in 1990.  My 43-year-old wife Trici died equally as suddenly in 1999, and my 13-year-old son Rory died of brain cancer in 2005.  Along the way, I discovered a new way to do grief.  A way rooted in hope with the promise of a full, joy-filled life.

We’ve forgotten that death is a normal part of life.  We spend millions and millions of dollars because we’re so desperate to prolong life, regardless of the quality of life our beloved experiences during their last few days, or weeks, or months or even years.  We call this love.  It is not. 

We’ve told ourselves over and over again that the death of a child is unnatural.  Our mantra is now “No parent should have to bury their child.”  We’ve  conveniently forgotten that up until the beginning of the last century, due to advances in medicine, almost every family buried two or three or even four of their children before the kids reached the age of five.  Half of all children born, died before they were 12-years-old.

In our attempt to get back to “the way things were” as quickly as possible, we’ve shortened the rituals surrounding death.  We now need to wrap it up and tie it with a bow in three days or less, because most of us have to be back at work.  A two or three day visitation and funeral where immediate family was supported by extended family, friends and neighbors has conveniently morphed into a quick and easy one-stop, no muss no fuss, sign the book so they know you were there; walk past the dead body or better yet, the ashes in a pretty urn; shake a hand with a bumbled “my deepest condolences;” and you’re back home in 15 minutes or so, if you timed it right.  We will do anything and everything possible to make sure we never have to feel a feeling or express an emotion.

And now we’ve decided that grief is the enemy.  A sickness.  A disease.  We  need to label it and dissect it and give a time period - 365 days - before it becomes “complicated.”  We’re being told that women have a harder time, and are more susceptible to “catching” complicated grief.  Same scenario if the death of your beloved was sudden, or by suicide, or your beloved was a child, or God forbid, you’ve had multiple losses.

Grief is the automatic, internal response to loss.  If you are human and you attach to people, places or things ~ a beloved, your job, your house, your car, your health, your youth, etc ~ and you lose that something, you will grieve.  Everyone grieves.  All the time.  And grief expresses itself in countless number of confusing and surprising ways, such as sadness, and anger, and guilt, and numbness and confusion.  Grief expresses itself though overeating or losing your appetite, through heart palpations and dizziness.  Through loss of memory, and a strong desire to stay in bed, or work all the time or sit in a chair and stare.  This is all grief.  Most of us don’t know much about it.  How would we?  We pretend it doesn’t exist.  We never talk about it, until it is our turn to navigate the journey.

Although, the very nature of grief is wild, and unpredictable, and nonlinear, and yes, cruelly complicated, grief is not the enemy.  Grief is not to be avoided at all costs.  Grief can be the great teacher, when we let it.

We heal from all the losses we experience when we mourn; when we identify what is occurring on the inside and push it up and out.  This is the new way to do grief.  We mourn when we externalize the internal.  The problem is, however, that most of us are given 3-5 days to mourn and then it’s back to work and back to “normal.”  It’s the message we get over and over from our boss, our family members, our friends and our colleagues.  They don’t know any better, and won’t until it is their turn.  They are innocent and ignorant. 

When someone we dearly love dies, a part of us dies too.  The part dies that was wrapped up in the plans and wishes and dreams we had for our life with our beloved, be that a child, a spouse or partner, a parent, or a dear family member or friend.  Life will never go back to the way it was.  The challenge, and the opportunity is to create a new life.  A life that is richer because we are capable of loving, deeply.  A life that is more compassionate, and kinder, and more gentle.  A life filled with gratitude for what is.

Healing occurs when we mourn in a safe, sacred space where we get to feel every feeling and emotion that arises.  A space where we feel loved and lovable, and where we are seen, heard and honored.  Sadly, we no longer create this space for ourself and we certainly don’t create that space for each other.  Therefore, most of us no longer mourn.  And that’s why our grief journey may get complicated.  It's not the grief that’s complicated.  Grief is natural and normal.  It's the lack of understanding, love, compassion, kindness, gentleness and the willingness to accompany another person on their journey that complicates the journey.  We can do better.

About the author

Tom Zuba is a life coach, author and speaker teaching a new way to do grief.  Tom offers those living with loss the the tools, knowledge, and wisdom to create a full, joy-filled life. 

In 1990, Tom’s 18-month-old daughter Erin died suddenly.  His 43-year-old wife Trici died equally as suddenly on New Year’s Day 1999 and his 13-year-old son Rory died from brain cancer in 2005.   Tom and his son Sean are exploring life one day at a time in Rockford, Illinois.

If you'd like to explore working one-on-one with Tom using FaceTime or Skpe, please contact Tom at

To learn more about Tom’s book click: Permission to Mourn: A New Way to Do Grief." To learn more visit, join Tom’s Healing Circle on Facebook (, follow Tom on Twitter @ TomZuba, at YouTube and find him on Pinterest.

Comments (11 Comments)

Wow your in Rockford Illinois, my daughter lives in Lockport Illinois, I’m in California now, my son is in gateway drug treatment in Chicago, June 4,2016 my son and his wife were in a car accident Melissa pasted my son Jason isn’t doing well at all he is fighting everything and everyone, after reading about mourning, and all I’ve read about your book it makes sense thank You

Posted by Anna Perkins Smith on January 26, 2017

say thanks to so a lota lot for your site it assists a lot
fifa 17 points

Posted by fifa 17 points on October 27, 2016

I LOVE this!!!! So true! Every word in here, I just want to say yes. It’s okay to hurt, okay to cry, okay to “feel”, I grieve because I loved, and I would never want that love taken away, ever. Tom, I’m sorry you had to go through what you did to be a source of healing to everyone else, but thank you.

Posted by Amber on May 30, 2016

I am so glad I came across your blog today. My son died November 15, 2014 in a car accident. He was my only child. For the most part, I think I am surviving it much better than I first imagined. But there are days when I am completely overwhelmed with grief. Reading your blog today has made me feel not so alone in this journey, and reminded me to keep moving forward. I miss him so much, but I want to honor him by remembering his life, not just concentrating on his death. Thank you for helping me today.

Posted by Deanna on May 29, 2016

men are expected to at most let a tear develop but not cry.
I have experienced so much loss from body parts and functions to all my closest relatives. I now sob sometimes silently, other times loudly and uncontrollably. I lived for decades never being allowed to mourn my losses. I know now, to function at all and to be helpful we must mourn. Thank you for articulately saying what needs to be said

Posted by ed on May 16, 2016

What a wonderful post… eloquently written….it deeply touches the soul on so many levels. I too thought my life was over when my husband died. He was my world and having to continue life’s journey without him seemed unbearable. My family and friends never saw the pain I was in because I did a good job of hiding it. Thanks to you Tom for allowing me to open up and let it all out. I am now beginning to heal and I do see that life can be fun again.

Posted by Lorna on February 15, 2016

I can completely iftiendy with this. I have had a lot of loss through the years, and for years I let the grief weigh me down and keep me in pain. With my most recent loss, however, I have decided to be proactive. First, I have learned that the only way to recover is THROUGH. If I try to go over, under, or around my pain then that means I’m not dealing with it and it will continue to lie and call to me from the past. Just like your metaphor about climbing up the mountain.Second, I realize that my energy is a force field that can draw to me either negativity or positivity. It’s all a matter of perspective about myself, about my past, and about my future. I can stay stuck in grief, or I can feel my feelings while simultaneously moving forward in faith.Speaking of faith, that for me is the undercurrent of it all. I don’t believe my Higher Power wants me to suffer. I choose to suffer. When I step through each day in faith and believe I am being taken care of, then I am, and eventually the grief subsides.Thank you for this site, and for all that you do.

Posted by Jahli on December 13, 2015

I don’t think I even realize how I am pretending at life!All that I need to grieve about aside from the obvious…Thank You Tom! Merry Christmas and Love, MaryPat

Posted by marypat on December 05, 2015
Oh how I love reading what you have to say, Tom! My only child,Cheri Angela Condray died on May 13 2013. Since that phone call I spent almost 2 yrs in shock. I did not even know she was sick! Yes Tom, her death cracked me wide open smiles however now I understand that I can create a better me. A person I was meant to be. It is solely up to me. Yes oh Yes, I thank you Tom so much for enlightening me to the better way to grieve! oh when I read anything you write, Tom it inspires me to change my way of thinking. thank you from the innermost part of me for your sharing, caring, and most of all for being You! Many blessings abound for us Sincerely, Cher
Posted by Cher Baker on November 18, 2015

My husband passed quickly 6 days ago and the hardest part is the fear of not being able to live the rest of my life without him !?

Posted by Donna on August 25, 2015

Great post! What can we do if we’ve pretended we were ok, but really aren’t? How do we start mourning? What exactly does it look like?

Posted by Jess on June 23, 2015

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