Grief is a normal and understandable reaction to loss. When a loved one dies, the family left behind may feel intense pain, and they may long to see that person once more. People who have been diagnosed with a major illness may also experience grief as they contemplate the loss of their own life. Even people who lose their jobs or a treasured possession may experience grief, especially if they lose these items suddenly.
Grief can strike anyone, young or old, and it can cause debilitating sadness, longing and feelings of hopelessness. In most cases, the symptoms resolve on their own within a few months as the family learns how to cope without the loved one. In some cases, however, grief can become severe and debilitating, and sometimes it can last for months or even years.
Severe, debilitating grief may not resolve without help. People who feel unable to move through their daily lives two months after the loss, or people who struggle with major symptoms of grief they find frightening, might benefit from grief counseling, medications or both.
The Standard Stages
It’s important to reiterate that grief is a normal, healthy response to a loss. According to an article published by the National Cancer Institute, most people recover from grief within six months to two years. Many people don’t need assistance to recover from their losses, and they adjust to their new lives over time.
Most people who experience a loss work through five stages of grief:
Signs and Symptoms
- Denial or disbelief
- Anger or rage
- Bargaining or looking for ways to reverse the loss
Not everyone experiences all of these feelings, and sometimes people experience these stages in a completely different order. Sometimes people move back and forth through the stages as they adjust to their circumstances.
While people are experiencing grief, they may have trouble going to work, and they may withdraw from friends and surviving family members. They may cry or seem sad and low. Again, these symptoms are typically considered normal, and they can pass on their own.
Severe or Complicated?
According to an article published by Harvard Medical School, up to 50 percent of people who lose a spouse experience symptoms of major depression after the death occurs. Experiencing a profound loss like this can cause major symptoms, and these symptoms of grief can be overwhelming and difficult to deal with. The grieving people may know that the symptoms will abate with time, but they may find the wait simply too difficult to bear.
People with severe grief may:
- Feel overwhelmed with grief and unable to work through the symptoms
- Use alcohol or drugs to numb the feeling of grief
- Experience severe or debilitating depression
- Feel that symptoms are growing more severe with time
Some people experience a form of grief known as complicated grief. Here, the grieving person may feel anxious and fearful of death, experiencing symptoms common to people with post-traumatic syndrome. They may hallucinate about the person who has died, and they may contemplate suicide. The grieving person might also truly believe that the dead person is still alive. While complicated grief can happen to anyone, it’s more common when the death was sudden, violent or traumatic in some way. It’s also more common if the grieving person believes that he or she could have prevented the death in some way. People with a history of a mental illness such as depression, anxiety or personality disorders might also be at higher risk for complicated grief.
People with severe grief or complicated grief truly do need help in order to heal. Call us today; we can find you a treatment program or counselor who can help you work through your symptoms and ultimately move forward with your life.
No specific medications exist to treat the symptoms of grief. Some doctors may not prescribe any medications whatsoever, as they believe grief is a normal process the person must experience in order to work through the loss. The medication program provided typically depends heavily on the needs of the patient and the advice provided by the doctor.
People with severe or complicated grief may benefit from antidepressant medications that can help lighten the person’s mood and keep debilitating thoughts at bay. Some doctors also provide sleeping medications or anti-anxiety drugs that can help the grieving person sleep. These treatment programs are highly customized, however, and one treatment plan doesn’t work on all types of grief.
While medications themselves may not cure grief, they can sometimes help the grieving person feel well enough to participate in other forms of therapies, and those therapies may provide real help. A study published in the journal Psychiatry Research found that patients who took antidepressants for complicated grief were more likely to complete their complicated grief therapies. Interestingly, however, the same study found that people who took antidepressants for complicated grief weren’t more likely to complete standard therapies for grief. Each person is different, and each form of grief is different, so the use of medication must be customized and closely monitored as a result.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
This form of talk therapy is used to treat a wide variety of conditions, from addiction to mental illness. Here, the addicted person is asked to consider how thoughts and behaviors are connected. Then, the person is asked to look for ways to eliminate negative thoughts and focus on producing positive thoughts. The grieving person is still allowed to say anything he or she pleases during the therapy sessions, but he or she learns how to work through negative thoughts before they become negative behaviors.
People working through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques may form deep attachments to their therapists, and they may attend sessions multiple times each month. In the past, people were encouraged to “move on” past their grief and leave the deceased person behind. Now, therapists look for ways to help the person integrate the grief into his or her life. Perhaps the patient can think about how the deceased person would react to an event, or perhaps the patient can write a journal directed to the person who has died. These can be delicate and sensitive conversations, and the patient must completely trust the therapist in order for these techniques to work.
Complicated Grief Therapy
Some counselors use a modified form of therapy to treat people with symptoms of complicated grief. Since these patients have symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they may benefit from therapy techniques that are commonly used to treat PTSD.
In a complicated grief therapy program, the patient:
How it Works
- Tells the story of the loss over and over
- Confront unpleasant thoughts related to the death
- Holds imaginary conversations with the deceased person, under the therapist’s guidance
- Looks for ways to reengage with the world
This form of therapy might seem extreme and slightly frightening, but it can be remarkably effective for people who are dealing with this specific form of grief. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, 51 percent of people who participated in this targeted form of counseling recovered, compared to 28 percent of people who received standard CBT treatments. They also tended to respond to the therapy a bit more quickly.
As part of a treatment program for grief, some counselors suggest that patients begin an exercise program. Even a daily walk might be helpful, as it allows the grieving person to get out of the house and spend time in the fresh air. Patients might also be encouraged to eat nutritious foods at regular times, and spend an adequate amount of time sleeping. These tasks may seem simple enough, but they can be difficult for the grieving person to accomplish without help. Concerned friends and family members can help by offering to walk alongside the grieving person, or they can provide assistance during mealtimes as well as help and companionship.
Some grieving people find community support groups to be incredibly helpful. Here, they can listen to other grieving people discuss their losses, and they can reach out and share their own stories of loss. Many community hospitals provide such support groups, and some grief therapists hold private sessions for all of their grieving patients to attend. People who can’t access resources in their communities can even find support groups online. According to a study published by the American Counseling Association, these online groups can provide some support, although they may not be appropriate for everyone.
Some people also find that reaching out to their religious community can be helpful. Working through grief often means looking for meaning in the life that remains, and some people find that their religious communities can provide this sort of meaning. In addition, some faith-based communities offer support groups of their own that combine talk sessions with close studies of religious texts, and these talks can be quite helpful for some people.