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Mental Health Center

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Bereavement Raises Health Risks

Death, Illness, and Emotional Distress Are More Likely After the Death of Spouse or Child
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 7, 2007 -- The weeks and months after the death of a spouse or child may be a particularly risky time for their loved ones.

So say Dutch experts who reviewed studies on bereavement (defined as recently losing a significant person to death) in the U.S., Europe, Australia, and other countries.

Their review shows that death, illness, and emotional distress are more likely among the bereaved than among other people, especially in the first six months of bereavement.

The higher death rate among the bereaved is "attributable in large part to a so-called broken heart," write Utrecht University's Margaret Stroebe, PhD, and colleagues.

Suicide, alcohol-related deaths, and heart disease deaths are among the risks. Nonfatal illnesses also rise during bereavement, the review shows.

Psychologically, bereavement is "a harrowing experience for most people, one that causes considerable upset and disruption of everyday life," Stroebe's team writes.

"For most people the experience, though difficult, is tolerable and abates with time," they write.

Each person's bereavement experience is unique. And while no one can replace the person who has died, support from friends and family makes a difference, note Stroebe and colleagues.

They observe that grief is normal, but complicated grief -- an unusually long and/or intense grieving period -- is rare but may call for professional counseling.

Of course, it never hurts to seek counseling for any problem. But many people may get through bereavement without it, according to Stroebe's review, published tomorrow in The Lancet.

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