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Grief

Definition

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

Alternative Names

Mourning; Grieving; Bereavement

Causes

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 grieving.

Everyone feels grief in their own way. But 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 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, trouble sleeping, and lack of productivity at work.

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask 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:

  • Clergy
  • Mental health specialists
  • Social workers
  • Support groups

The acute phase of grief usually lasts up to 2 months. 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

Joining a support group where members share common experiences and problems and help relieve the stress from grieving especially if you have lost a child or spouse.

Outlook (Prognosis)

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

Possible Complications

Call your health care provider if you have any of the following:

  • Are not able to deal with grief
  • Are using excessive amounts of drugs or alcohol
  • Become very depressed
  • Long-term depression that interferes with your daily life

When to Contact a Medical Professional

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

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.

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


Review Date: 2/24/2014
Reviewed By: Fred K. Berger, MD, Addiction and Forensic Psychiatrist, Scripps Memorial Hospital, La Jolla, California. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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