Long-lasting Grief Raises Your Risk of Health Problems

"Complicated grief" that lasts more than six months puts you at a greater risk for health problems, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. M. Katherine Shear, a researcher at the Columbia University School of Social Work and College of Physicians and Surgeons, found that long-term grief can lead to prolonged sleep disturbance, substance abuse, immunologic abnormalities, and thoughts of suicide. It also boosts your risk of heart disease and cancer.

Grief is caused by a major loss, such as the death of a spouse or other loved one. Other causes include being diagnosed with a chronic illness or going through some other sort of event that impairs your long-term quality of life.

Long-Term Impairment

Typically, grief related to the lose of a loved one resolves itself within about six months, at which point you're able to start functioning again at a close-to-normal level. Complicated grief happens when symptoms persist beyond that point. "People with complicated grief often feel shocked, stunned or emotionally numb, and they may become estranged from others because of the belief that happiness is inextricably tied to the person who died," Dr. Shear said in the study. She compared it to a "wound that doesn't heal."

Complicated grief symptoms include deep emotional pain, an intense yearning or longing for the lost person, intrusive thoughts and memories, feelings of disbelief, problems accepting the loss, and an inability to think about life being meaningful without the person who died.

Health Risks from Complicated Grief

For most people grief resolves itself normally, but some are at a higher risk for complications. According to Shear, they include those who lose a child or romantic partner or who lost someone to sudden or violent death. It's almost more common in women over age 60. Losing your partner boosts your risk by up to 20 percent, and loss of a child makes it go even higher. Lack of advance planning for emergencies also plays a role because of the stress placed on family members who make difficult decisions like when to terminate life support without knowing the affected person's wishes.

Complicated grief is treatable, but Dr. Shear said antidepressant medication isn't usually the best option. Instead, she recommended a special type of therapy based on cognitive/behavioral techniques. She said this therapy should show results within about 16 weeks by helping sufferers work through their feelings and focus on their own futures. If you suffer from grief that doesn't let up, talk to your doctor or a therapist about appropriate options.