As we age, loss is inevitable. Changes in all areas of life, from declining health to a job loss to the death of a loved one, have the potential to chip away at our sense of well-being and life satisfaction.
Although the experience of loss and the life changes that often follow can be extremely difficult, most people eventually cope with loss. Grief that becomes more serious and persistent, however, inhibits the healing process and increases the risk for depression and other psychological disorders.
Distorted or exaggerated grief that can last for many years is often labeled as complicated, pathological, or unresolved grief. Symptoms may include separation distress such as intense yearning for or intrusive thoughts about a deceased person, social isolation, functional disabilities, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and a lack of emotional response.
Complicated grief is often misdiagnosed because the symptoms tend to mimic those of depression or an anxiety disorder.
Research shows that men are at higher risk than women for developing complicated grief. Women who relied on a deceased partner for tasks such as home repair or paying bills are also particularly at increased risk for experiencing persistent grief.
Individual risk factors include low self-esteem, poor coping skills, failing physical health, and having a history of mental health problems. The most important predictors for the development of complicated grief reactions are a lack of social support and poor coping skills.
Often, people experiencing complicated grief visit their primary care physician for physical problems, such as loss of appetite or insomnia, believing that a medical doctor can heal what ails them. However, these symptoms are likely caused by the psychological distress of complicated grief.
Physicians may refer their patients to a local social worker and recommend counseling. Social workers help clients review how they have coped with previous losses and help them find new ways to cope with the current grief issue. Social workers will also monitor depressive symptoms to determine if their clients’ grief is becoming more severe or chronic.
Since a strong support system is vital to psychological health, social workers help clients assess their significant relationships and analyze how these relationships contribute to the clients’ stress level. In counseling, social workers will encourage socially isolated clients to find new ways to become involved with others.
People experiencing complicated grief may also need assistance with medication management or referrals to group therapy and to organizations that provide various types of resources.
As a team, social workers and medical doctors can collaborate to treat grief symptoms that could increase patients’ risk for developing depression or other disorders. The support that they provide may be just what is needed to help people during a difficult time cope with loss and move on with their lives.