When you lose someone you love, the grief can be overwhelming. It’s normal to feel sorrow, numbness, anger, anxiety, guilt, and so many other difficult emotions. While those feelings don’t disappear overnight, in most cases, they gradually become less intense and more manageable.
But what happens if time goes by and you don’t feel any better?
For about 4% of bereaved individuals, that’s their reality. It’s called “prolonged grief disorder,” and it’s the newest diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Read on to learn more about this disorder and how mental health treatment can help.
What Is Prolonged Grief Disorder?
Prolonged grief disorder may be diagnosed when you lose a loved one and you continue to experience an intense yearning for or preoccupation with them more than a year later. These feelings typically cause severe personal distress as well as problems with daily functioning (most of the day, nearly every day for at least a month). In essence, you become incapacitated by grief, unable to return to previous activities.
- Identity disruption (e.g., feeling like part of you has died)
- Marked sense of disbelief about the death
- Avoidance of reminders that your loved one is dead
- Intense emotional pain (e.g., anger, bitterness, sorrow) related to the death
- Difficulty with reintegration (e.g., problems engaging with friends, pursuing interests, planning for the future)
- Emotional numbness
- Feeling that life is meaningless
- Intense loneliness (i.e., feeling alone or detached from others)
Note that while grief and depression may go hand in hand, they are not the same. In fact, prolonged grief may be more closely related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The History of Prolonged Grief
Though its inclusion in the DSM-5 is new, prolonged grief disorder is not.
Back in the 1990s, psychiatric epidemiologist Holly G. Prigerson was studying a group of older adults and gathering data on the effectiveness of depression treatment. She discovered something interesting—many of the patients’ symptoms of intense grief (like yearning, pining, and craving) were distinct from depression, and predicted negative long-term outcomes like cancer, heart problems, high blood pressure, and suicidal ideation.
Prigerson found that for most people, symptoms of grief peaked in the six months after the death of a loved one. But a small percentage of the bereaved remained stuck, struggling with mood, sleep, and overall functioning.
Today, the newly accepted diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder can pave the way for people to get the tailored mental health treatment they need.
Treatment for Prolonged Grief Disorder
When grief persists, mental health centers can provide treatment to help you resume a healthy and hopeful life. Treatment involves learning how to adapt to the loss—to accept the reality of it, and to be able to envision a positive future for yourself.
Core themes of targeted grief therapy include understanding grief, managing painful emotions, thinking about the future, strengthening relationships, telling the story of the death, learning to live with reminders, and remembering the person who died.
Treatment also involves learning to re-engage with life by connecting with other people. Support groups can combat social isolation, helping you identify with others who have experienced debilitating loss. An inpatient treatment program can provide a safe place to work through grief and loss, and equip you with the tools to move forward.
If you’ve been struggling with intense grief, help is available. With treatment from a mental health center, you can become “unstuck” and rediscover the joy of a healthy and fulfilling life.
Are you experiencing symptoms of prolonged grief disorder? Don’t wait to ask for help. Contact Beachside Rehab’s trained admissions counselors at 866-714-4523 to learn more about our private mental health treatment programs.