With the continuing state of crisis in the world at large, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) is taking steps to recognize those who have experienced long-term emotional responses to loss. The COVID-19 pandemic, war, natural disasters, and gun violence have all contributed to the overwhelming feeling of despair. To better aid clinicians in understanding this development, the APA recently revised the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR) to include a new diagnosis: prolonged grief disorder.
Grief is a natural feeling that most people will experience at some point in their lives. To fully understand complicated grief, it’s important to recognize standard levels of emotional distress. You may have heard about the “Stages of Grief” before. This model helps us accurately discern how a person is processing a loss. The stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) may not proceed in any specific order. People also frequently cycle back to previous stages. This is all part of the normal grieving process. It’s also common for emotions to come and go during different periods of life. You may feel like you have moved past these feelings, only to have an event or person bring up these emotions again. These are all completely normal responses.
Prolonged Grief Disorder Symptoms
What differentiates complicated grief from standard grieving is the impact your mourning has on daily functioning and interactions. According to the APA, the defining characteristics of prolonged grief disorder include:
- Disruption of identity
- Disbelief about the loss
- Avoidance of reminders of the death
- Intense emotional disturbances
- Difficulty moving on
- Feelings of numbness
- Inability to see meaning in life
- Debilitating loneliness
Grieving that extends beyond the societal or cultural norms and causes a disturbance in a person’s ability to function normally. To qualify for this diagnosis, these symptoms occur most days for at least a month and impair relationships, life commitments, and job functioning.
Why Recognizing Prolonged Grief is Important
Whenever a new diagnosis or specifier is added to the DSM, this provides mental health clinicians with a better understanding of how to help those in distress. Before this addition, someone may have had their symptoms dismissed as part of the normal grieving process. Now, mental health providers can better recognize when these emotions go beyond what is standard. Anything that interferes with a person’s ability to complete daily tasks or interact with others, is cause for concern. Bereavement can be confusing because it will naturally affect a person’s life. By creating a clinical standard for grief that is beyond the norm, professionals can develop best practices to help those who are struggling.
Identifying Complicated Grief in Yourself
If you’ve lost someone you love within the last year, and you’re still struggling to cope, it may be time to talk to a professional about your experience. The best indicator that you may need further support is if your emotions are impacting your ability to complete daily tasks. Emotions are a normal part of the grieving process. However, prolonged sadness can have more serious effects on how you interact with the world. When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to discuss your concerns with a mental health provider.
Prolonged Grief Disorder Treatment
Anyone dealing with a major life event, such as a death, will look for ways to cope with these difficult emotions. Sometimes, these coping mechanisms are healthy outlets, like journaling, therapy, or picking up a new hobby. Other times, people may turn to substance use as a way of avoiding their feelings altogether. Substance use can quickly turn into an addiction, leading to difficulty managing both bereavement and the addiction.
At Hemet Valley Recovery Center, we know how challenging it is to heal from a loss while addressing a substance use disorder. Older adults can be especially susceptible to the effects of mourning alongside an addiction due to the number of deaths they have experienced. Our program designed specifically for this age range recognizes the unique challenges the older adult population faces regarding addiction. If you or someone you love are suffering from addiction with symptoms of complicated grief, contact us today. Our treatment options, from medical detoxification to residential and outpatient facilities, help you heal in a safe, professional environment.