Grief and Loss

Grief and Loss: Facts, Statistics, and Treatment

In the medical setting, grief is defined as the emotional reaction to various types of loss, which can occur in many different ways. For instance, losing a job and losing a loved one might trigger the same grief response. And while it’s absolutely normal for individuals to experience this emotional distress, there are some cases when grief might become problematic for a person’s health.

When allowed to persist without resolve, grief can become one of many different mental health disorders. And that’s why it’s important to recognize when an emotional reaction to a loss or trauma can still be considered healthy, and when it’s time to seek help and support.

Fast Facts: Grief in Numbers

  • Roughly 3 million people die every year in the United States, each one leaving an average of 5 grieving friends and family
  • At any given time, 57% of Americans are grieving a loss
  • Complicated grief which is characterized by overwhelming emotional distress occurs in 10-20% of all grieving individuals
  • 40% of grievers meet the criteria for depression one month after the loss, while 24% meet the criteria for depression two months after
  • Grief costs the United States $75 billion due to lost productivity
  • Up to 30% of grievers will still experience profound emotional distress even after 3 years from the loss
  • 65% of grieving Americans experience some form of physical ailment along with their grief
  • 49% of grieving individuals report that spending time with family and friends helps to ease the emotions

What are the Most Common Causes of Grief?

Grief is always caused by loss, but the definition of loss tends to vary. Generally speaking, however, loss is when something or someone is taken away from a person. It could be a social loss, an emotional loss, or a physical loss. The most common losses that result to grief include:

    • Death – Grief is more common among adults because of their deeper understanding of and investment in various relationships. The death of a spouse or a child are the most profound causes of grief that lasts beyond one year.
    • Unemployment – Losing a job can be a severe blow to a person’s mental well-being. Oftentimes, the grief stems from the uncertainty and the financial instability that comes with joblessness. In some cases, people can be so invested in their career that the thought of finding new occupation can cause emotional distress.
    • Divorce or breakup – A monogamous, intimate relationship is one of the milestones of adulthood. Thus, separating from a lifetime partner – especially if you’ve been together for a while – can feel daunting and uncertain. This can be particularly true if the person who is left has different feelings about the I relationship.
    • Medical diagnosis – In this case, the loss would be the semblance of a healthy, long life. Many people struggle to cope with a medical diagnosis, especially if it provides a life expectancy. The idea that a person’s life might be cut short can cause sadness and worry, particularly in situations where the condition was unexpected.
    • Financial trouble – Being unable to pay off debts, having personal items repossessed, and struggling to find ways to afford everyday life can be particularly stressful. The loss of a semblance of financial stability and security can be especially difficult for someone who’s coming from a much more comfortable status.
    • Major life change – Whether it’s a move to a new town or adopting a new family member, situations that change your present reality can cause grief in that you lose you sense of normalcy. Any major life change can make a person experience grief, and until they become accustomed to the new normal, these emotions can linger.

What are the Symptoms of Grief?

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced her concept of the five stages of grief in her book On Death and Dying. This theory stipulated that individuals experience grief in five stages, namely: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. However today, most experts don’t rely on these stages.

The main reason is because science has found that grief isn’t experienced in a linear pattern as the theory suggests. Instead, individuals may jump from one phase to another throughout the entire process. So, someone might revert back to denial even years into the grieving experience, depending on how they’re coping with the loss.

That’s why these days, experts will mostly focus on the symptoms of grieving. Interestingly, they can also be categorized into five different groups. Each person will experience them differently, and some might manifest more symptoms in a specific category than others. This all depends on the individual’s coping style, their personality, and the severity of the grief they experience.

 

EMOTIONAL MENTAL PHYSICAL SOCIAL SPIRITUAL
Disbelief Difficulty concentrating Sleeping too much or too little Distancing yourself from family and friends Constant and frequent introspection
Agitation Recurrent thoughts of the loss Eating too much or too little Refusing to talk Questioning the present reality
Helplessness More detailed dreams or none at all Weakness and lack of energy Over or underachieving in work and school Praying and reaching out to entities and spirits
Sadness Self-injurious thoughts Fatigue and tiredness Aggressive or violent behavior Changing religious beliefs
Shame Impaired decision making Body pain and muscle tension Seeking attention and approval Questioning the necessity of living
Anxiety Impaired thought process Constipation or diarrhea Isolation Feeling abandoned and punished
Anger Lowered self-esteem Headaches and dizziness Crying easily when talked to Contemplating the whereabouts of a lost loved one’s soul
Emptiness Imagining scenarios where the loss did not occur Lowered immune response Engaging in more arguments than normal Feeling a deeper connection with spirituality
Despair Paranoia Increased heart rate and respiratory rate Refusing to join activities and groups Immersing in spiritual media and literature

 

Keep in mind that this isn’t an all-inclusive list and that people tend to experience grief differently. That means while some of these symptoms might happen to one person, doesn’t mean that another would feel exactly the same way.

Another thing about these symptoms is that for them to qualify as clinical grief, they must interfere with daily functioning and socialization. So, if an individual’s grief gets in the way of work, family, relationships, productivity, and self-care, then it might be necessary to seek the help of a medical professional.

How Does Grief Affect the Brain?

There are a number of chemicals called neurotransmitters that work within the brain. These neurotransmitters are kind of like messengers, allowing the neurons to communicate to one another and produce a response. For instance, dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for the pleasure response, among other things, and signals when you’re engaged in a pleasurable, satisfying experience.

When a person experiences a loss, the different neurotransmitters in the brain lose their delicate balance. As the flood of chemicals takes over the neurons, the different pathways in the brain are also disrupted, which is why it’s difficult to regulate basic functions like sleep, eating, and motivation.

In normal situations, this sudden flood of chemicals will resolve on its own. But in some cases, this could be what it takes for a person to develop depression, among other mental health conditions.

Keep in mind that for many of these disorders, a well-known cause is a major life change, a trauma, or a loss. For instance, an individual experiencing significant stress might already have their brain chemistry slightly altered. That said, a loss or trauma could exacerbate the situation and cause clinical depression, bipolar disorder, or even schizophrenia in some cases.

Treatment for Grief

It’s important to address grief because it can lead to a variety of other conditions if allowed to persist without resolve. Fortunately, the treatment process for grieving can be relatively easy to apply especially when the grief exists on its own. However, in individuals where a pre-existing medical condition is present, then it might be necessary to target both issues to completely resolve the emotional distress.

The most common treatment methods for grief include:

  • Psychotherapy – With this method, experts explain what grief is so that individuals get a better understanding of the science of what they’re experiencing. Individuals may be requested to write letters to the lost loved one, if the grief is the result of a death, in order to let go of pent up emotions. Participants are also requested to share their thoughts and feelings in order to address the roots of the grief and emotional distress.
  • Counseling – Individuals who undergo counseling are provided an avenue where they can express themselves and explain their fears, their worries, and anxieties so that they can process their emotions with an expert. Counseling can also help individuals who have lost jobs, livelihood, their homes, or other essentials for living by providing them coping mechanisms and by teaching them new skills in order to regain what was lost.
  • Medications – In situations where the grief might be severe, individuals may be provided medications to help regulate and normalize their brain chemistry. In more advanced cases of complicated grief, and individual may be given medicines similar to those prescribed for people with major depressive disorder.

Grief is Treatable

Although it’s absolutely normal to grieve a loss, it’s never okay to let those emotions encroach on the many other aspects of a person’s life. When left unchecked, grief can significantly affect a person’s livelihood, their relationships, and their health. So, if you’re feeling like the grief is becoming a little too hard to handle, seeking prompt treatment and therapy can help you move past the loss and experience life through new lenses.

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