Are you suffering from Prolonged Grief Disorder (PGD)? When most people think of losing a loved one, they imagine the typical stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, what if you don’t feel like you’re moving on? What if your grief feels like it’s never going to end? Fortunately, Prolonged Grief Disorder is now officially recognised as a mental health condition.
With the addition of PGD to the DSM-5 (the key manual that includes standards for assessing and diagnosing mental health conditions), medical professionals can now be properly reimbursed for providing medical care for grief. As a result, those dealing with prolonged grief will not only receive better treatment but feel more validated in their emotions.
Prolonged grief disorder
Defined as an emotional response to loss that can last for months or years, Prolonged Grief Disorder affects people in many different ways and it may be weeks, months or even longer before they recover.
Distinct from depression (which is characterized by feelings of sadness), PGD is marked by an overwhelming desire for the deceased.
According to studies, approximately 7 per cent of people who lose someone to death experience prolonged grief, but far higher figures have also been found among parents who’ve lost a child and those whose loved ones died suddenly and violently.
Symptoms of prolonged grief
Grief is a common, normal human emotion, and a natural reaction to loss.
When mourning the death of his wife, the 20th-century writer C.S. Lewis wrote “grief is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.”
Anyone who has lost a loved one knows the fog of grief. But prolonged grief is different from normal grief in that the immediate grief reactions persist over time with more or less undiminished strength, causing a considerable loss of everyday functioning. Telltale symptoms include:
- emotional numbness,
- intense emotional pain and loneliness,
- losing one’s sense of self, and
- disbelief about the loss.
Notably, this prolonged grief doesn’t tend to improve much with antidepressants.
Why is diagnosing prolonged grief important?
Research reports that approximately 10 per cent of children and adults experience PGD after experiencing the loss of a significant loved one or cherished pet.
Left unaddressed prolonged grief disorder can lead to serious physical health issues and emotional distress.
How is prolonged grief treated?
Many psychologists and counsellors offer complicated grief treatment that draws on some of the techniques used for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Like PTSD, prolonged grief can be difficult to navigate especially when struggling with:
- disbelief about the death,
- intrusive mental images of your departed loved one,
- avoiding anything that reminds you of them, and
- no respite from a deep yearning for your newly departed.
Professional treatment usually includes techniques focused on helping people adapt to the loss through understanding grief, managing painful emotions, thinking about the future, strengthening relationships, telling the story of the death, learning to live with reminders and healthy ways to remember the person who died.
How long should it take to grieve?
Grief affects everyone differently. However, grief typically resolves within 6 to 12 months, but some people may continue to experience the symptoms of grief and develop prolonged grief disorder. In that case, there is a noticeable decline in physical, emotional, or spiritual health.
Grief is a very personal and private experience. Some people handle it well, while others need professional help to heal from their loss. While recovering from PGD is not a quick process, it doesn’t require years of psychotherapy either.
Psychologists and professional counsellors aim to help those grieving accept the reality of the loss and restore their capacity for wellbeing. Within 6 to 20 sessions mental health professionals target healing milestones like:
- accepting grief
- managing emotions
- envisioning a positive future
- strengthening relationships
- narrating the story of the death
- living with reminders
- connecting with memories.
The role of condolences
One of the reasons why grief can leave us feeling so helpless is that it is not talked about in the home or taught in schools. Even medical students who get some training in hospice care and are exposed to death issues have little exposure to dealing with grieving. But this will rapidly change, now that PGD is a recognised mental health condition. Those suffering from this form of complicated grief will feel recognised, comforted and receive the right intervention early.
When to see a doctor
Prolonged grief disorder is not part of the natural grieving process and requires immediate attention. Contact your doctor or a mental health professional if you have intense grief and problems functioning that don’t improve at least one year after the passing of your loved one. For example, if you continue to:
- have trouble carrying out normal routines,
- isolate from others and withdraw from social activities,
- experience depression, deep sadness, guilt or self-blame,
- believe that you did something wrong or could have prevented the death,
- feel life isn’t worth living without your loved one, or
- wish you had died along with your loved one, please seek professional help.
The good news is that 70 per cent of people with prolonged grief improve with the treatment. And now that prolonged grief disorder is officially recognised as a mental health condition this will allow mental health care professionals to be reimbursed for treating the condition. What’s more, scientists will be able to secure more research funding which will ultimately help us all understand and better deal with grief.