What is Prolonged Grief Disorder?
Prolonged grief disorder (PGD) is a mental health condition characterized by intense grief lasting for an extended period following the death of a loved one. The diagnosis and treatment of PGD are not yet standardized in the way more established mental health conditions are. However, mental health professionals can provide support. What are the symptoms of PGD? Additionally, what can cause it? What can you do about it? Today, we discuss.
When an individual loses someone close to them, it’s normal for them to feel grief for a long time afterward. The grief could last even years following the death: Different people deal with it in different ways. This is normal. But, it’s important to distinguish between grief, and PGD. For a select group of individuals, the feeling of intense grief persists, and the symptoms are severe enough to get in the way of continuing their lives as normal. It may cause a person to be preoccupied constantly with persistent thoughts of their deceased loved one. They may experience difficulty in performing daily activities. Persistent grief affects everyday function in a disabling way that the typical grieving process does not.
It’s important to note that grief is a natural response to loss, and that it affects everyone differently. Not everyone who grieves for a prolonged period necessarily has PGD. It is diagnosed when the grief symptoms are significant enough to affect the individual’s ability to function in their life.
Prolonged Grief Disorder Symptoms
For a diagnosis of PGD, the loss in question must have occurred over a year prior to the diagnosis for adults, or over 6 months for children or adolescents. Additionally, the person must have experienced at least three of these symptoms almost daily for a month prior to the diagnosis. Symptoms include:
- Marked disbelief about the death
- Intense emotional pain related to the death
- The individual’s grief lasts longer than expected based on social and cultural norms
- Avoidance of reminders that the lost person is deceased
- Difficulty engaging with others, pursuing interests, and planning for the future
- Intense loneliness (feeling alone or detached from others)
- Emotional numbness
Some individuals may be at a greater risk of developing PGD. For example, older adults, people with a history of depression or bipolar disorder, and caregivers, especially if they were caring for a partner. Prolonged grief disorder is also at risk of occurring if the loss of a loved one happens suddenly or under traumatic circumstances. PGD often occurs alongside other mental disorders. For example, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
Treatment For PGD
For most people, the feeling of grief following the loss of a loved one decreases over time, and does not impact their everyday ability to function. They don’t usually require mental health treatment. But, for people who develop the intense, ongoing symptoms of Prolonged Grief Disorder, there are some methods of treatment that may help them.
The use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been found to be effective. “Complicated grief treatment” incorporates elements of CBT, as well as other methods of helping the person grapple with the loss. This treatment focuses on both helping the person accept the reality of the death, and working toward goals for the future, adjusting them to living in a world without their lost loved one.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can also be helpful in addressing the aforementioned symptoms that occur alongside PGD, including sleep problems. Research* has shown that CBT is an effective insomnia treatment. Furthermore, joining a bereavement support group may offer a useful source of social connection and support for afflicted individuals. This may be able to help them feel less alone, mitigating the feelings of isolation that could increase the risk of PGD. There are, however, currently no medications specifically tailored to treat the symptoms of grief.
Despite the existence of these possible treatments, many people experiencing PGD do not choose to seek help. One study found that, among caregivers suffering from prolonged grief disorder, the majority of them didn’t choose to access mental health services in response. If you or someone you know is experiencing intense, prolonged grief, or difficulty coping with the loss of a loved one, seek help. Support from a counselor, mental health professional, or support group can be beneficial.