There is grief. And then there is complicated grief.
In the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year, Katherine Shear of the Columbia School of Social Work took on the topic — one that afflicts 2 to 3 percent of those who lose a loved one.
Complicated grief is different than what Dr. Shear refers to as “severe grief.” It is prolonged — longer than six months and at times into the years and decades. It is more prevalent in those who lose a spouse or a child and more likely if the death is sudden or violent. Women over 60 are the most susceptible.
You can see the results of complicated grief on an MRI, she added, saying that there are abnormalities in autobiographical memory, parts of the brain involving emotional regulation and other areas. And while those who grieve often suffer health problems in the early bereavement period, those who suffer from complicated grief have persistent health problems — from substance abuse and sleep disturbance to the potential for heart problems and even cancer.
“Complicated grief is like a wound that doesn’t heal and can follow the loss of any close relationship,” Shear said in a New York Times article.
Complicated grief, she said, rarely gets better on its own. While some people benefit from pharmaceuticals, the best approach is psychological therapy, she wrote.
There are currently no professional guidelines for treating someone with complicated grief — in fact, medical professionals don’t agree on the criteria for diagnosis.
But Shear’s article could help some clinicians recognize the problem and get them some help.
Let’s hope that the research on this topic can mean that people don’t have to suffer so long anymore.