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Grief

Definition

Grief is a reaction to a major loss. It is most often an unhappy and painful emotion.

Alternative Names

Mourning; Grieving; Bereavement

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Grief may be triggered by the death of a loved one. People also can experience grief if they have an illness for which there is no cure, or a chronic condition that affects their quality of life. The end of a significant relationship may also cause a grieving process.

Everyone feels grief in their own way. However, there are common stages to the process of mourning. It starts with recognizing a loss and continues until a person eventually accepts that loss. People's responses to grief will be different, depending on the circumstances of the death.

For example, if the person who died had a chronic illness, the death may have been expected. The end of the person's suffering might even have come as a relief. If the death was accidental or violent, coming to a stage of acceptance might take longer.

Symptoms

One way to describe grief is in five stages. These reactions might not occur in a specific order, and can (at times) occur together. Not everyone experiences all of these emotions:

  • Denial, disbelief, numbness
  • Anger, blaming others
  • Bargaining (for instance "If I am cured of this cancer, I will never smoke again.")
  • Depressed mood, sadness, and crying
  • Acceptance, coming to terms

People who are grieving may have crying spells, some trouble sleeping, and lack of productivity at work.

Signs and tests

Your health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your symptoms, including your sleep and appetite. Symptoms that last for a while may lead to clinical depression.

Treatment

Family and friends can offer emotional support during the grieving process. Sometimes outside factors can affect the normal grieving process, and people might need help from:

The acute phase of grief usually lasts up to 2 months. Some milder symptoms may last for a year or longer. Psychological counseling may help a person who is unable to face the loss (absent grief reaction), or who has depression with grieving.

Support Groups

You can help the stress of grieving by joining a support group, where members share common experiences and problems.

See also:

Expectations (prognosis)

It may take a year or longer to overcome strong feelings of grief, and to accept the loss.

Complications

Grief and loss can affect your overall health. It can lead to depression or excessive alcohol or drug use. Grief that lasts for more than 2 months and is severe enough to interfere with your daily life may be a sign of complicated grief and more serious illness, such as major depression. Medication may be helpful.

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if:

  • You can't deal with grief
  • You are using excessive amounts of drugs or alcohol
  • You become very depressed
  • You have long-term depression that interferes with your daily life

Prevention

Grief should not be prevented because it is a healthy response to loss. Instead, it should be respected. Those who are grieving should have support to help them through the process.

References

Powell AD. Grief, bereavement, and adjustment disorders. In: Stern TA, Rosenbaum JF, Fava M, Biederman J, Rauch SL, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2008:chap 38.

Kutner JS, Kilbourn KM. Bereavement: Addressing challenges faced by advanced cancer patients, their caregivers, and their physicians. Prim Care. 2009;36:825-844.

Simon NM, Wall MM, Keshaviah A, Dryman MT, LeBlanc NJ, Shear MK. Informing the symptom profile of complicated grief. Depress Anxiety. 2011;28(2):118-126.


Review Date: 2/13/2012
Reviewed By: Linda Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington; and Timothy Rogge, MD, Medical Director, Family Medical Psychiatry Center, Kirkland, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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