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Hope for People Stuck in Grief

Program That Targets Long-Term Mourning Works Well, Study Shows
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WebMD Health News

May 31, 2005 -- Dealing with death is part of life but for some people the grief associated with losing a loved one is so crippling that it dominates their lives for years to come.

It is estimated that as many as a million Americans a year develop a chronic, disabling condition known as "complicated grief" brought on by the loss of someone they love. The symptoms differ from normal depression, and now new research suggests that the treatment should as well. In the latest issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers report that an intensive program targeting grief

symptoms was more effective than traditional psychotherapy for alleviating the disabling symptoms associated with prolonged mourning.

'Stuck in Grief'

Virginia Eskridge, 61, tells WebMD that she had been "stuck in grief" for two decades when she went through the program, which was developed by psychiatrist Katherine Shear, MD, and colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh.

Eskridge's second husband died of a brain tumor in the early 1980s, just a few years after their marriage. Even 20 years later, she says, she still broke down in tears when she tried to say his name and had constant intrusive feelings of guilt associated with the suffering he experienced.

"He went through a lot of unnecessary pain because we tried so hard to save him," she says. "They gave him four kinds of chemo, and radiation, and we got him into an experimental drug program. I now know that his type of tumor is uniformly fatal, but we didn't know that at the time. And I loved him so much that I was desperate for him to live."

Grief Remains Center Stage

Eskridge was among 95 people with prolonged grief enrolled in a University of Pittsburgh study. Symptoms of complicated grief last more than six months after the death of a loved one.

Shear tells WebMD that, like Eskridge, the participants had all or some of the symptoms associated with complicated grief including:

  • A sense of disbelief regarding the death long after it has occurred
  • Recurrent pangs of painful emotions with intense yearning and longing for the dead loved one
  • Avoidance of situations and activities that are reminders of the loved one
  • A preoccupation with distressing thoughts about the death

While all of these emotions are normal after the loss of a loved one, Shear says that over time these feeling should become less intense. For some people this happens in a few months, for others a few years.

"When you lose someone you love you never stop feeling sad about it," she says. "But in normal grieving it doesn't stay the dominant focus of your mental life. With complicated grief these feelings stay center stage."

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