38: Grief, Bereavement, and Adjustment Disorders

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CHAPTER 38 Grief, Bereavement, and Adjustment Disorders




Grief may be defined as the physical and emotional pain precipitated by a significant loss (Figure 38-1). The loss may be of a person or pet, but it can also be of a meaningful place, job, or object. A term closely related to grief is bereavement, which literally means to be robbed by death. Many subtypes of grief have been suggested; some of the more commonly used subtypes can be found in Table 38-1.1,2

Table 38-1 Subtypes of Grief

Anticipatory grief A grief reaction that occurs in anticipation of an impending loss; its symptoms include anger, guilt, anxiety, irritability, sadness, feelings of loss, and a decreased ability to perform usual tasks.1
Acute grief The first stage of the process of bereavement. Symptoms may begin immediately following the loss, or may be delayed.
Delayed grief The absence of the expression of grief at the time of a loss.
Unresolved grief Grief symptoms that reach extremes of intensity, duration, or tenacity.2
Complicated grief Unresolved grief plus clinical complications (e.g., physical symptoms) that interfere with daily function.2

Clinical Features and Diagnosis

While grief may be universal, each individual’s experience of bereavement is unique. When confronted by a grieving person, the physician is often challenged to determine whether the person’s grief is proceeding normally. This determination is often complicated by the fact that the severity and duration of grief vary widely; grief is shaped by sociocultural influences, and it does not necessarily proceed smoothly from one phase to another.10,11 The dearth of information about abnormal bereavement in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) reflects the lack of a general consensus regarding the differences between pathological and normal grief. Recent research on the subject is highlighted below.

Many investigators have described the stages of normal bereavement.4,1214 One useful guideline proposes three overlapping phases: (1) shock, denial, and disbelief, followed by (2) a stage of mourning that involves physical as well as emotional symptoms and social isolation, eventually arriving at (3) a reorganization of a life that acknowledges, but is not defined by, the loss of the loved one.

Nonpathological grief can bring many symptoms reminiscent of depression: decreased appetite, difficulty with concentration, sleep disturbances, self-reproach, and even hallucinations of the deceased’s image or voice (though reality testing remains intact in normal grief). Assessment of various dimensions of the mourner’s experience can provide a more complete diagnostic picture13 (Table 38-2).

Table 38-2 Dimensions of Grief

Emotional and cognitive responses to the death of a loved one May include anger, guilt, regret, anxiety, intrusive images, feelings of being overwhelmed, relieved, or lonely
Coping with emotional pain Mourners may employ several strategies (e.g., involvement with others, distraction, avoidance, rationalization, the direct expression of feelings, disbelief, or denial, use of faith or religious guidance, or indulgence in “forbidden” activities)
A continuing relationship with the deceased The mourner’s connection with the deceased may be maintained through symbolic representations, adoption of traits of the deceased, cultural rituals, or various means of continued contact (e.g., dreams or attempts at communication)
Changes in daily function Survivors may experience changes in their mental or physical health or their social, family, or work functions
Changes in relationships The death of a loved one can profoundly shift the dynamics of a survivor’s relationships with family, friends, and co-workers
Changes in self-identity As the mourning process proceeds, the grieving person may experience himself or herself in new ways that may lead to the development of a new identity (e.g., an orphan, an only child, a widow, or a single parent)

Adding to the difficulty in assessing grief is the lack of consensus regarding a normal duration of bereavement. At the very least, it may be safely said that the symptoms of grief usually last longer than anyone (mourner or observer) would like. Features of normal grief (e.g., anniversary reactions) may continue indefinitely, even in otherwise well-functioning individuals. The severity and duration of grief may also vary among cultural groups. The DSM-IV15 suggests that in the aftermath of loss, the diagnosis of major depressive episode should be reserved for those individuals whose grief symptoms are severe and persist beyond 2 months following the loss. Also, symptoms that extend beyond the context of the loss (e.g., guilt about worldly events that bear no direct connection to the mourner or the deceased) should alert the clinician to the possibility of an Axis I disorder.

The DSM-IV does not classify grief as a major psychiatric disorder, but bereavement is given a “V” code as a condition that may be the focus of clinical attention. Despite this lack of recognition by the DSM-IV, many observers have described what Lindemann termed “distortions of normal grief.”16 Delayed grief may simply be a manifestation of a person’s cultural expectations, or may signal a potentially pathological problem. If an individual is unable to deal with the reality of a significant loss, the grief may be distorted in its expression. The survivor may begin to experience physical symptoms similar to those experienced by the deceased, or may have unexplained anniversary reactions.

The syndromes of unresolved grief and complicated grief are distinguishable from, yet may co-exist with, major depression, and respond to specific treatment.17 In unresolved grief, the grief symptoms are especially recalcitrant and do not seem to follow a path toward resolution. Key features of complicated grief include a sense of disbelief regarding the death, anger and bitterness over the death, recurrent pangs of painful emotions, and a preoccupation with thoughts of the lost loved one (that often include distressing intrusive thoughts related to the death).17 Clinical complications may include anxiety, physical morbidity, social/occupational/familial dysfunction, or health-compromising behaviors (e.g., noncompliance with prescribed medical treatment).18,19

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