Harvard Mental Health Letter

Complicated grief

Looking for help when mourning persists and intensifies.

Except for those who die too young, grief is an unavoidable and normal experience. But it can take intense and disturbing forms that surprise a bereaved person, including forms that in other circumstances would be called a psychiatric disorder. In some cases, psychiatric treatment may help.

Bereaved persons may suffer not only sadness but anger and suspicions about the motives of prospective helpers. They may ruminate obsessionally about the events leading up to the death and blame themselves or others for it. Up to 50% of widows and widowers have symptoms typical of major depression in the first few months. They may also have hallucinatory experiences — imagining that the dead are still alive, feeling their presence, hearing them call out. The writer Joan Didion, in a memoir, called her period of mourning for her husband "the year of magical thinking."

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