“At its core, grief is a reaction to a change that you didn’t want or ask for” David Kessler, grief expert and author.
Prolonged grief is a recognized diagnosis that occurs when an individual continues to have an intense longing or preoccupation with someone who has died. A person with prolonged grief has difficulty accepting the death. They can feel as if they have lost a part of themselves, have difficulty continuing with life, are living with emotional numbness and avoid places and activities that remind them of their loved one. Thoughts of how the death could have been avoided and blaming others or themselves are typical of prolonged grief.
There is evidence to suggest that prolonged grief disorder is not the same as depression or anxiety. However, people who experience prolonged grief are at risk for health conditions like an increase in blood pressure. The heart muscle can be altered due to intense grief resulting in “broken heart syndrome”, a form of heart disease that has the same symptoms as a heart attack. Because grieving brings on a flood of neurochemicals and hormones, these changes can bring on a loss of sleep, appetite, anxiety and fatigue.
The pandemic and the need for social isolation has not allowed us to gather, grieve and take solace from our normal rituals which can result in the acceptance of a loss being stalled or stopped and the result of that is prolonged grief. This is especially true of our aging loved ones, many of whom are already isolated from family and friends and cannot easily adapt to the technology of a “Zoom wake” or sitting Shiva alone. If you know someone who has lost a loved one or friend during the pandemic and, six to twelve months later are not functioning well day to day, they may be suffering from prolonged grief and should be encouraged to see a mental health professional. In addition, finding ways to ease their sense of loneliness and isolation can help.
The pandemic brought social isolation and loneliness to family caregivers as well often caused by the inability to bring in help or get respite through an adult day care. This month marks one year since lock down and throughout this year many families will be marking incredibly hard anniversaries that go beyond the death of a loved one. Elders and their family caregivers processing a multitude of losses may find it hard to move on.
Given all that we have collectively lost during this past year, I can’t help but wonder if the medical definition for prolonged grief should be expanded beyond the death of a person. Collectively, we lost the ability to gather socially, to attend in-person school and the social outlet of our offices and many people lost a way of life when they lost their jobs. The ability to gather socially without masks and social distancing, despite the increase in vaccinations, continues to take its toll.
The truth is, moving on from our collective grief as a nation and the prolonged grief people we love may be going through will not be easy. It requires a willingness to fund mental health programs, a willingness to reach out for help and a willingness to listen to the stories.
Disclaimer: The material in this blog is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace, nor does it replace, consulting with a physician, lawyer, accountant, financial planner or other qualified professional.
Deb is available as a caregiver consultant. She will answer the question: “Where do I start?” and find the resources to alleviate your stress. If you would like to invest a half hour to learn how she can help you, please contact her at: Free 30 minute consulting call
Deb is the author of “Your Caregiver Relationship Contract.” This book explains how to have an intentional conversation and the how unspoken expectations can cause problems. Click here to learn more about Your Caregiver Relationship Contract.