Grief over the death of a loved one is a fact of life. If we never grieved over a loss, we would be heartless and inhuman, but some of us get “stuck” in grief. Maybe you know someone who’s suffered a major loss—the death of a child, a sibling, friend, life partner—even a pet…and, instead of sadly recalling fond memories from time to time, that person just can’t move on. More than a year later, the loss is still all he or she talks about. In fact, this person has no interest in anything else. He doesn’t care about his home or appearance or socializing anymore. In fact, you’re frightened for this person’s mental health, and well you should be! Grief can become a disorder. But there is new hope thanks to a technique that gets to the root of the problem and relieves prolonged grief.

FACE YOUR FEELINGS

Prolonged grief is a disorder that affects about 10% of mourners and differs from depression. Of course, normal mourning can last a long time—up to a year or more. But natural sorrow over a loss differs from obsessive, prolonged anguish that compromises our ability to enjoy life and maintain relationships and routines. Symptoms include constant yearning for and emotional anguish about the deceased that lasts for more than six months. In addition to this emotional anguish, prolonged-grief disorder includes…

  • The inability to accept the death
  • A sense of meaninglessness
  • Difficulty engaging in new activities and getting on with your life.
  • HELP TO MOVE ON

    A study conducted by researchers at University of New South Wales showed a way out of the pathological grief trap. The fix might be surprising because it involves actively remembering the death of the loved one—the very thing that people with prolonged-grief disorder say they can’t get past. In this study, 80 patients with prolonged-grief disorder received 10 weekly sessions of group cognitive behavioral therapy (talk therapy aimed at recognizing and changing negative thinking patterns) and four individual sessions of either cognitive behavioral therapy or exposure therapy—a type of therapy that exposes a person to a traumatic memory, phobia or some other issue he or she works hard to avoid. During each 40-minute exposure-therapy session, patients were guided by their counselors to vividly recall the experience of the death they were grieving and relate their feelings about it.

    The results. After six months of treatment, about 85% percent of the patients who received exposure therapy recovered from their grief—it no longer consumed their thoughts or took the pleasure out of every aspect of their lives. Meanwhile, 62% of patients who received only group and individual cognitive behavioral therapy recovered.

    Why such a big difference? Whereas cognitive behavioral therapy teaches a person how to recognize negative thoughts and related behaviors to change them, exposure therapy teaches a person how to face and transform emotions about a specific memory or situation. Addressing the emotional factor is a critical but overlooked component of healing grief, according to the study’s lead researcher, Richard A. Bryant, PhD.

    GETTING HELP

    The longer that prolonged-grief disorder lingers, the greater the chances of long-term problems such as insomnia, risky health behaviors (such as unsafe sexual activity and drug and alcohol abuse), suicidal thoughts…even physical illnesses such as heart disease from emotional stress, explained Dr. Bryant. So, if you think you or a loved one might have prolonged-grief disorder, seek help right away. To find the right therapist, see the Psychology Today database of licensed mental health professionals or the National Association of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapists. When contacting therapists, be sure to ask them whether they have training and experience in exposure therapy.