Harvard Mental Health Letter

Coping with complicated grief

Grief can be so intense and long-lasting that it sometimes resembles a psychiatric disorder. As many as 50% of widows and widowers, for example, develop symptoms typical of major depression in the first few months after a spouse dies. They may also have hallucinatory experiences — imagining that the dead are still alive, feeling their presence, hearing them call out. These symptoms, upsetting as they may be, are usually normal responses to a profound loss. In most people, the symptoms ease over time. One review noted that 15% of people who are grieving are depressed one year after a loss. By two years, the proportion falls to 7%. But if the symptoms are intense enough to interfere with relationships, work, school, and other areas of life, the problem may be complicated grief — a term that describes a grieving process that is particularly difficult. Also known as protracted or chronic grief, it combines features of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — which is why some professionals call it traumatic grief. One study estimated that nearly 5% of all older adults were experiencing complicated grief.
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