When Does Grief Cross the Line into Mental Disorder?

Coming to terms with the death of a loved one can be one of the most difficult and heart-wrenching moments in life. Grief is a natural part of the healing process, and it can take time to find a new normal without your loved one. However, sometimes grief can be overwhelming and lead to mental health issues. In this article, we will explore when grief crosses the line into a mental disorder.

Key takeaways:

What is grief?

Grief is a normal human reaction to loss. The passing of a cherished person close to you, the end of a relationship, or the loss of a job are among the potential triggers for the grieving process. Grief can manifest in different ways, such as through physical, mental, and emotional symptoms.

Grief goes through five stages:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

In her book On Death and Dying, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was the first to describe these stages. The stages of grief are not linear processes, and each individual experiences them differently. While not everyone may go through all five stages, they can still serve as a helpful framework for understanding how grief works.

Is there a normal period of grieving?

Grieving the loss of a loved one has no set length of time. Grief is different for each person, and the length and intensity of the grieving process can vary greatly from one person to the next. Some people start to improve after a few weeks or months, but for others, the pain of loss can last for years. For some, it may never go away completely. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and everyone's path to healing will be different.

Grief can become complicated

Complicated grief disorder (CGD) is a clinical term for when a person's mourning does not go through the stages, and they become stuck. The difference between normal grief and complicated grief disorder is that complicated grief is more intense and lasts longer. Although normal grief tends to fade with time, untreated complicated grief disorder may last years.

Symptoms of complicated grief

The following are some of the symptoms of CGD:

  • Persistent feelings of disbelief or numbness
  • Intense longing for the deceased
  • Feeling that life is meaningless
  • Bitterness or anger
  • Difficulty moving on
  • Avoiding reminders of the deceased
  • Social withdrawal and isolation

Dangers of unresolved grief

Not working through grief can have significant adverse effects on mental health and overall well-being. Here are some of the dangers of not working through grief:

  • Prolonged emotional pain. Unresolved feelings of sadness, anger, and guilt can linger for years, making it difficult to move on with life.
  • Physical health issues. Grief can have physical effects on the body, such as insomnia, loss of appetite, and fatigue.
  • Increased risk of mental health disorders. Unresolved grief can increase the risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Negative Impact on relationships. The inability to process grief effectively can strain friendships and family ties. Those grieving may become withdrawn, irritable, and emotionally distant, making it difficult for loved ones to provide support. Over time, these strained relationships can further compound feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Inability to move on with life. Unresolved grief can make it difficult to form new relationships, try new things, and find joy in life.

How to recognize if grief has become a mental disorder

Here are some signs that a person's grief may have developed into a mental disorder:

  • Prolonged duration. Grief is a process that takes time; however, if the grief persists for an extended period, such as more than six months, it may be a sign that it has developed into a mental disorder.
  • Intense and overwhelming emotions. If the feelings are too strong and get in the way of daily life, it could be a sign of something more serious. Some common emotions can include persistent sadness, anxiety, irritability, and anger.
  • Impaired functioning. Grief can impact daily life, but if it hinders a person from functioning normally, that may because for concern. For example, if the person has trouble completing work or school tasks, engaging in self-care, or maintaining relationships, it may be a sign that they need professional help.
  • Difficulty accepting the loss. While it's normal to struggle with accepting a loss, it may be a sign of a mental disorder if the person cannot accept the loss. This may manifest as persistent thoughts about or preoccupation with the deceased or the event that caused the loss.
  • Physical symptoms. If a person has ongoing physical symptoms like headaches, stomach pains, or chest pain not caused by a diagnosable illness, it can indicate a more serious emotional or psychological issue associated with mourning.

In summary, it is important to recognize and seek professional support for symptoms of complicated grief, such as prolonged sadness, detachment, and difficulty functioning. Seeking help from a doctor or specialist grief therapist can prevent long-term adverse effects on physical and mental health. Remember, there is no shame in seeking help and support during this difficult time.

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