Complications of Grief

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Complications of Grief

Topic Overview

Complications that can develop from grieving include depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and physical illness. If you or someone you know experiences any of the following problems, contact a doctor or mental health professional for counseling, medicine, or both.

Depression

Depression is the most common condition that can develop when a person is grieving. Depression is common in adults who experience a divorce or death of a spouse.

High levels of anxiety

Anxiety also is common during the grieving process. But anxiety can last longer than expected. And it can also become intense and include extreme guilt. Anxiety can:

  • Make you feel like you are losing control of your emotions. Overwhelming fear is also common.
  • Trigger episodes of physical symptoms (anxiety attacks) that you might mistake for a heart attack. During an anxiety attack, you are likely to have a feeling of intense fear or terror, difficulty breathing, chest pain or tightness, heartbeat changes, dizziness, sweating, and shaking.

Suicidal thoughts

Sometimes when grieving, people have thoughts of ending their own lives. If you have been depressed or have had thoughts of suicide in the past, you may be vulnerable to having suicidal thoughts while grieving.

Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if you or someone you know is considering suicide.

Any thoughts of suicide must be taken seriously. The threat of carrying out the plan is very real if a person is thinking about suicide and:

  • Has the means (such as weapons or medicines) available to harm himself or herself or do harm to another person.
  • Has set a time and place to end his or her own life.
  • Thinks that there is no other way to end his or her pain.

Physical illness

Grieving stresses the body, weakens the immune system, and in general makes us more prone to illness, aches, and pains. People who have chronic medical conditions may have a recurrence or their symptoms may get worse when they are grieving. Adults who lose a loved one sometimes develop new health problems. Children can also have stress-induced physical problems while grieving, despite their youth and apparent resilience.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

People who experience a traumatic loss are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an intense emotional and psychological response to a very disturbing or traumatic event, such as a rape, assault, natural disaster, accident, war, torture, or death. You can develop PTSD symptoms immediately following such an event. Or PTSD may develop months or even years later.

Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder may include:

  • Persistent and painful re-experiencing of the event through dreams (nightmares) or while awake (flashbacks).
  • Emotional numbness, or inability to feel or express emotions toward family, friends, and loved ones.
  • Avoiding any reminders of the event.
  • Being easily angered or aroused, "on edge," or easily startled (hyperarousal).

Counseling and medicines (such as antidepressants and antianxiety medicines) can be helpful for people who have post-traumatic stress disorder.

Complicated grief

Complicated grief is a syndrome of acute grief and anxiety lasting 6 or more months after the death of a loved one.1 Complicated grief may also be called separation trauma, traumatic grief, or prolonged-acute grief.

Symptoms of complicated grief include:

  • A preoccupation with the loved one.
  • Excessive loneliness.
  • Longing and yearning for the loved one.
  • Difficulty doing everyday things without the loved one.

Complicated grief is different from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With PTSD, a person is anxious and fearful that the traumatic event that caused the loss will occur again. In complicated grief, anxiety results because the person is searching and yearning for his or her loved one.

If you or someone you know has symptoms of complicated grief, seek help from a professional counselor specializing in grief counseling.

References

Citations

  1. Zisook S, et al. (2009). Death, dying, and bereavement. In BJ Sadock, VA Sadock, eds., Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 9th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2378-2407. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

Credits

ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAnne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerSidney Zisook, MD - Psychiatry
Last RevisedOctober 17, 2011

Last Revised: October 17, 2011




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