Marked by feelings of emptiness, hopelessness and an urge to withdraw, depression is a normal and appropriate response to the loss of a loved one.
While everyone experiences grief in their own way, most of us find that our state of mind improves with time. But some people — about 1 in 5 people — linger in the depression phase. They often feel isolated from family or friends and can find life difficult.
A Different Kind of Grief
Most often known as complicated grief, this extreme, long-lasting condition is also known as unresolved or traumatic grief.
No one knows what causes the 1 million new cases that research suggests develop each year. But the reasons may include the circumstances of the loved one’s death. The grieving person’s relationship with the deceased and their mental health can also play a major role.
Bereaved people are more likely to have problems when they can’t stop thinking about how they or someone else could have prevented the death. They’re also more likely to have a complicated response if they have a history of depression, anxiety, personality disorders or trouble dealing with loss.
How can you tell if a loved one is dealing with complicated grief? If you notice three or more of the following symptoms more than six months after a loved one’s death, you should encourage them to seek help:
- Strong longing for the person who died
- Strong anger related to the death
- Intense loneliness, even when they are with others
- Difficulty accepting the death
- Strong urges to see, touch, hear or smell things that remind them of the deceased
- Feeling that life is meaningless without the person
- Avoiding people, places or things that remind them of the loss
- A strong physical or emotional reaction to reminders of the loss
- A hard time caring about or trusting other people
- Stopping relationships because they are thinking about the deceased
- Feeling shocked or numb
Even without treatment, some who suffer from complicated grief will eventually emerge from it. For the others, treatment can prevent serious health problems. According to Jennifer Paterakis, a licensed clinical professional counselor, encouraging a loved one to attend counseling and join a bereavement group can be helpful.
“The right counseling can help them feel comfortable talking about loss and sharing any feelings they may be having,” Paterakis shares.
“You can also encourage them to join a bereavement support group, so they are with other people who are experiencing the same loss,” Paterakis says. “It can be a powerful feeling and experience to be with other people in a group to learn ways to cope. A bereavement group allows participants to not feel judged, and offers tools to nurture and take care of themselves.”
Resources in Your Area
Help is available for anyone who experiences this intense grief. If it’s a loved one, help them make an appointment to talk to a doctor. If you’re experiencing this kind of grief or you’re having major sleep problems, suicidal thoughts, or other worrisome symptoms, talk to your doctor, behavioral health specialist or social worker.
Find strength in numbers.
If you think group support could be helpful for you or a loved one, talk to your doctor or check online to find grief support groups in your area.
Sources: Symptoms of Major Depression and Complicated Grief, the American Cancer Society, 2016; Treatment of Complicated Grief: A Randomized Controlled Trial, JAMA, 2005; What is grief? American Academy of Family Physicians, 2012