David Earl Johnson, LICSW

3 minute read

[’Complicated Grief’ Goes Beyond Depression][1]

Researchers estimate that 10 percent to 15 percent of the surviving relatives of people who die naturally experience complicated grief, Prigerson said. She said people who lose someone they were emotionally dependent on are at greatest risk.

She is working to get the disorder recognized in the American Psychiatric Association’s next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The next DSM-V will be published in 2012. Dr. Michael First, a Columbia University psychiatry professor and member of a committee that will decide what goes into the DSM, said the panel will consider whether complicated grief merits its own designation. “From what I’ve seen so far, it’s certainly not an off-the-wall suggestion,” First said. He said doctors see patients all the time, especially the elderly, who never get over the death of a loved one.

Dr. Richard Glass, a psychiatry professor at the University of Chicago and deputy editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, said studies have shown that people suffering from complicated grief do not meet the criteria for depression or post-traumatic stress, although some of the symptoms overlap. “The evidence so far indicates that there really is something different here,” Glass said.

The most recent study, published Tuesday in JAMA by Shear and her colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, examined different ways to treat complicated grief. Researchers found that 51 percent of patients treated with a therapy developed just for the symptoms of complicated grief showed improvement. So did 28 percent of complicated grief sufferers who underwent a treatment commonly used for depression.

Golebiewski, 56, of North Fayette, was given the therapy for complicated grief as part of the study. It included being tape-recorded while he talked about his daughter’s life and death, then listening to those recordings. He said after listening to the tapes repeatedly, he developed ways of dealing with those feelings. “I was able to visualize her again in life and as happy as she was and the cheerful person that she was,” he said. “I was able to see her there in that context.”

Out standing research has documented our innate ability to help ourselves recover from grief. I believe people have the ability to facilitate recovery from many mental health disorders. The problem is that we create many obstacles that prevent our natural ability to recover from working as it should. For many years, grief groups have shown their effectiveness. One of the natural processes that emerge from these groups is that each member to review their thoughts and feelings about their losses repeatedly throughout their treatment. The group, with the help of a therapist, helps the member identify recurrent themes in their stories that suggest strategies to better cope with their feelings. This emotional process facilitates changing the memories about the loss, so that when inevitably, the survivor remembers their loss again, they remember the healing thoughts and feelings as well.

A similar process may be helpful recovery from memories caused by singular traumatic events. However, there are other issues in post-traumatic stress that need attention as well. The biggest obstacle to recovery from grief is denying or avoiding the thoughts and feelings that come with the memories. It is not possible to just forget something so emotionally important to us. Sometimes our lives interfere and limit the time we have to grieve. At other times, some believe it’s best not to think about it. It’s very important that we set aside a significant amount of time, preferably daily to devote to recoverying from grief. A photo album, sorting through the belongings of our loved one, as painful as it is, can be very helpful. If such efforts are not helpful, the help of a qualified mental health professional may be necessary.

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