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Mental Health Awareness Month

What is the Impact of Grief on Patients?

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Woman grieving

National Grief Awareness Day, founded by Angie Cartwright in 2014, encourages people to share openly about loss and bereavement, while educating the public about grief itself.

What is Grief?

Grief is the natural reaction to loss that is both a universal and highly personal experience. People can experience grief due to the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, or a terminal diagnosis.

Most people are familiar with the five stages of grief, the model created by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. But because the grieving process is different for every person, not everyone will experience these stages in this particular order—or experience some of the stages at all.

  1. Denial – The feeling that the loss can’t be real
  2. Anger – Bitterness, resentment, or rage about the loss itself
  3. Bargaining – Trying to regain control by imagining what you could have done differently
  4. Depression – Feeling hopeless and sad about the loss
  5. Acceptance – Acknowledging that the loss happened

Different Forms of Grief

Grief may seem like a straightforward response to a loss, but there’s much more to it than just the loss itself.

  • After the death of a loved one, the griever must then cope with secondary loss, like the loss of financial security, housing, identity, or safety.
  • In the case of an estranged parent or a strained relationship, there is an added layer of complexity to the grief.
  • A child who was adopted may grieve a more ambiguous loss—that of their birth parents.

Many people also deal with losses that are not openly acknowledged, socially mourned or publicly supported. This is known as disenfranchised grief, a term coined by bereavement expert Kenneth Doka. These losses can include the death of a pet, the loss of a job, or missing out on milestone events. In many ways, the world collectively experienced disenfranchised grief during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns as people missed out on celebrating birthdays, holidays, graduations, and proms.

The Impact of Grief

Mental Health
Grieving a loss, no matter how big or small, takes a toll on mental health. The combination of intense feelings of sadness, shock, and confusion can lead to prolonged periods of depression, anxiety, or even post-traumatic stress disorder.

Physical Health
Grief can increase inflammation and weaken the immune system. Intense grief can even cause broken heart syndrome—the weakening of the heart that results from severe emotional stress. Insomnia, fatigue, and poor appetite are also common ways that grief shows up in the body.

Complicated Grief

Everyone grieves differently, and there’s no set timeline for the grieving process. But when grief is severe and accompanied by dysfunctional behaviors, it becomes complicated grief. Marked by numbness or detachment, feeling that life has no meaning or purpose, and isolation or withdrawal from social activities, complicated grief is a prolonged, intense grief that typically doesn’t improve at least one year after the passing of a loved one.

How Therapists Can Help

  • Validate the patient’s experience and feelings surrounding their grief.
  • Help the patient identify healthy coping mechanisms and support systems in their life.
  • Connect the patient with resources that may also help them walk through the healing process.

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