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What is Prolonged Grief Disorder?

After you lose a loved one, it’s normal to experience feelings of grief for a long time. You may even feel this way for years following the loss: Grief affects different people in different ways. However, it’s important to distinguish between this feeling, and what mental health experts have called “prolonged grief disorder,” or PGD.

Prolonged grief disorder is a psychological condition characterized by an intense and prolonged reaction to the death of a loved one. It goes beyond the normal grieving process and can significantly impact a person’s functioning and well-being. PGD may cause the afflicted to be constantly preoccupied with thoughts about their lost loved one. They may experience difficulty performing daily activities at home or work. Persistent grief is disabling, and affects everyday function, in a way that expected grief doesn’t.

Symptoms of PGD

It’s important to note that grief is a natural response to loss, and not everyone who grieves for a prolonged period necessarily has PGD. Prolonged grief disorder is diagnosed when the grief symptoms are significantly distressing, and impact the individual’s ability to function in their daily life.

For a diagnosis of Prolonged Grief Disorder, the death must have occurred over a year ago for an adult (or 6 months for a child or adolescent). Furthermore, the individual must have experienced at least three of the following symptoms almost daily for a month prior to their diagnosis:

  • The grief lasts longer than expected based on social and cultural norms
  • A marked sense of disbelief about the death
  • Avoidance of reminders that the person is gone
  • Emotional numbness
  • Difficulty engaging with others, pursuing interests, and planning for the future
  • Intense loneliness (feeling alone or detached from others)

Not everyone who experiences intense grief after a loss will develop Prolonged Grief Disorder. However, for those who do, it’s a serious condition that may require professional help. An estimated 7% – 10% of adults will experience the symptoms of prolonged grief disorder.* Some people may be more at risk of developing PGD. For example, older adults, people with a history of depression or bipolar disorder, and caregivers, especially if they were caring for a partner. PGD is also a risk if the death occurred suddenly or under traumatic circumstances. Additionally, it often occurs alongside other mental disorders, such as PTSD, anxiety, and/or depression. Sleep problems are also common.

Treatment for PGD

For most people, feelings of grief following the death of a loved one decrease over time, and do not continue to impact their everyday function. Although feelings of grief may increase at different points in time, it doesn’t typically require mental health treatment. But for people who develop the more intense, ongoing symptoms of Prolonged Grief Disorder, there are, thankfully, some methods of treatment available.

Treatment for Prolonged Grief Disorder often involves psychotherapy, particularly a specialized form known as Complicated Grief Therapy (CGT). CGT aims to help individuals process their grief, confront any avoidance behaviors, and find ways to adjust to life without the deceased person while still maintaining a connection to their memory. In some cases, medication may be used to manage associated symptoms like depression or anxiety.

CGT incorporates the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can also be helpful in addressing symptoms that often occur alongside prolonged grief disorder, including sleep problems. Research* has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for insomnia.

Bereavement support groups may also provide a useful source of support and social connection. This may be a way to help the bereaved feel less alone, lessening the feelings of isolation that could increase the risk of Prolonged grief disorder. There are currently no medications specifically to treat the symptoms of PGD.

Get Help

Despite there being effective treatments out there, many individuals experiencing ongoing intense grief may not seek professional help. One study found that, among caregivers suffering from prolonged grief disorder, the majority didn’t choose to seek mental health services.

If you or someone you know is struggling with intense and prolonged grief after a loss, it’s important to seek help from a mental health professional who can provide appropriate assessment and treatment. This process can be beneficial in addressing the challenges of grief, and finding healthy ways to cope with it. Seek professional help today.


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