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6 Ways Grief Affects Your Health

6 Ways Grief Affects Your Health

The loss of a loved one can have a profound impact on your mental—and physical—well-being. Here are the signs to look out for and strategies to help you cope.

If you've ever experienced the loss of a loved one, you've likely confronted a period of grief and mourning in the days, weeks and months following the initial bereavement.

While this process is normal, it can affect both your mental and physical health, especially right after the death. For some, grief comes and goes. But for others, grief lingers long after the loved one is gone—and it may require treatment and attention.

Marie Mitarotondo is a grief recovery specialist, hospice chaplain and the spiritual director of Lourdes Health System in Collingswood, New Jersey. She explains that grief feels like something has been taken away from us, and is the is the collection of strong and conflicting emotions we feel when we lose someone or something we love.

“We’ve lost something,” says Mitarotondo, who has experience helping people through the grieving process. “And that can apply not only to the death of a loved one, but also to the end of a marriage or other relationship, or the loss of a pet, a prized possession or even your financial status.”

Although acute grief is a completely normal response to bereavement, if your grief lasts more than 6 to 12 months and is accompanied by problems like anger, inability to accept the death or inability to carry out your daily activities, you may be diagnosed with complicated grief.

But how can you differentiate between acute grief and forms like complicated grief that may become more problematic? And what can complicated grief mean for your mind and body? Here, Mitarotondo explains.

What is grief and complicated grief? 
Grief is a natural response to the loss of something close to you. That could be an adult family member, child or pet, or in some cases, even a job or home. Other traumatic experiences like pregnancy loss, car accidents and divorce or separation from a spouse can also bring about feelings of grief.

While acute grief eventually subsides with time—typically within a year—complicated grief, which is less common, tends to persist and can indicate more serious health conditions.

Complicated grief is characterized by profound changes in one’s mental or emotional well-being and may include feelings of intense worthlessness, loneliness, internal questioning of personal beliefs, a strong yearning for the person who passed and an inability to accept the passing. Symptoms of complicated grief persist for six months or more. In some cases, suicidal thoughts also accompany complicated grief.

The unpredictability of grief
Shortly after the loss, you can expect to experience feelings of sadness, confusion and shock. There is no “normal” or predictable amount of time to grieve, and Mitarotondo says it’s important to realize that there are no set “stages” of grief, as conventionally understood. “That’s simply a myth,” she says.

“In a sense, grief is wild. It can circle back and hit us just when we think we've gotten everything under control,” she explains. “And the return of grief may be prompted by a scent, a song or a phrase. It’s complex and can ambush us.”

The serious effects of grief
Certain health conditions may occur at the same time as complicated grief or may be worsened by grief. These include:

Depression: Around 50 percent of those with complicated grief experience unipolar major depression. This can include prolonged symptoms related to the grief, such as: 

  • Mood fluctuations and irritability
  • Sadness related to what has been lost  
  • Self-blame or guilt surrounding caregiving
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Weight and appetite fluctuations
  • Fatigue

Another common and more serious symptom of loss is suicidal thoughts or actions. Between 40 and 60 percent of those with complicated grief experience suicidal thoughts.

Insomnia: Insomnia is a disorder that interferes with your ability to sleep through the night and also affects how you function during the day. The condition can also cause sleep anxiety, the constant worry and obsessing that can come about when you can’t fall asleep, as well as concentration problems.

Anyone grieving (not just those with complicated grief) may experience sleep disturbances throughout the coping process, but insomnia is a common feature of complicated grief. In fact, sleep difficulties may worsen the symptoms of grief.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A sizable number of people with complicated grief—an estimated 30 to 50 percent—have PTSD, a condition which may involve flashbacks and nightmares related to the loss lasting for a month or more. Additionally, those with PTSD may feel the need to avoid people, places or things that remind them of the one who passed.

It's worth noting, though, that an inclination to avoid reminders of a loved one is also a hallmark of complicated grief itself, whether or not the patient experiences PTSD as well.

Anxiety disorders: Those who have complicated grief also have an increased risk of anxiety disorders. About 20 percent of those with complicated grief have generalized anxiety disorder, which is characterized by extreme and persistent worry over things like money, health, family or work.

Roughly 10 to 20 percent of people experiencing complicated grief also have panic disorder, a condition in which one experiences spontaneous panic attacks.

Increased drug use: Substance abuse is common among those with complicated grief. This can include the harmful use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs to cope with the loss.

Coping with complicated grief
The coping process can look different for everyone, but if you have complicated grief, experts generally recommend professional treatment. A psychiatrist, clinical social worker or primary care physician will walk you through the diagnosis process, which often includes an examination of your medical history and current symptoms, among other things. Your doctor will then recommend treatment options based on your symptoms and their severity.

The first line of treatment for complicated grief is often cognitive behavioral therapy, a treatment that can be done in a one-on-one setting with a therapist, in groups or even online. This type of therapy usually involves working through ways to change thinking and patterns of behavior.

Whether you decide to pursue individual or group counseling, Mitarotondo says you can expect to discuss the myths about grief, confront the losses you’ve experienced in your life (both past and present), learn to articulate the things you may have wanted to do differently in those situations and develop techniques that may be helpful in addressing future grief.

“We really focus on identifying and letting go of the negative, retaining the positive and sharing those feelings in a safe environment,” she says.

In addition to counseling or therapy, Mitarotondo also recommends a technique she uses in her programs called “memorializing the loss.”

“We use the creative arts to try to honor the person or other loss and make a positive concrete symbol of the relationship in all its goodness that people can carry forward,” she says. “Participants may create a collage, decorate a stone or a heart, create a small sculpture, write and share a letter or use another medium to make a symbol to remember and honor their loved one.”

To address any other complications stemming from grief—such as PTSD, major depression or substance abuse—your doctor may recommend more condition-specific treatment options such as medication or rehabilitation.

Healing doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten
If you’ve lost a loved one and you’re having a hard time understanding what life will be like once you do recover from the passing, you should know that healing—even from complicated grief—will never mean you’ve forgotten the person and what he or she meant to you.

Coping successfully just means you’ve learned to accept their passing, which is good for your physical, mental and emotional well-being.

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