Coping with the loss of a fellow service member, friend, or loved one can be one of life’s most difficult experiences. For most people, grief decreases over time. It may give way to acceptance, recovery and even personal growth.
However, you or someone you know may struggle with grief. It is sometimes too difficult to move past your losses and you can become stuck in an ongoing cycle of chronic grief. Medical professionals call this complicated grief.
Chronic grief affects about 10-15 percent of bereaved individuals—people who go through a significant loss. Military service members are at increased risk because of factors including:
- Constant/extreme levels of stress
- Separation from loved ones during deployments
- Exposure to sudden and traumatic deaths
- Multiple losses
Chronic grief can lead to other psychological health concerns like anxiety and depression. It can also negatively impact work, social and family life. For this reason, it is important to speak with a health care professional if you are experiencing any concerns that are persistent or that negatively impact your relationships and routines.
When is it Chronic Grief?
Chronic grief is overwhelming. For adults, it continues for at least 12 months. For children, it lasts at least six months.
Symptoms of chronic grief can dominate your life and may include:
- A strong desire and longing to reconnect with the deceased
- Experiencing disturbing images of the deceased or the death event
- Avoiding reminders that the loved one has died
- Feelings and thoughts that life has no meaning or purpose
It is important to remember that there is no normal or typical way to grieve. Grieving is an individual experience that may include a mixture of sadness, shock, guilt, anxiety, and loneliness. Personal factors, such as past trauma or psychological health concerns, can shape the intensity and length of grief. However, when something is keeping you or someone you know from accepting and coping with grief in a healthy way, it is important to talk to a health care provider.
Coping and Moving Forward
A health care provider can help you understand your reactions and develop a plan to move forward. Treatment for chronic grief is designed to unblock the natural process that helps you to adapt to a painful loss.
As a first step, talk to your health care provider about getting a screening. This can help them identify the source of your difficulties and design a treatment plan that works for you. Treatment may include:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): You will likely work with your health care provider to change your pattern of thoughts, and the feelings and behaviors they cause, so you can move past your grief.
- Complicated Grief Therapy (CGT): Your health care provider will work with you to understand what is preventing you from coming to terms with your loss. You will then work together to resolve whatever is stopping you from finding closure.
- Medication: Prescriptions can help if you are experiencing chronic grief and are also diagnosed with depression or anxiety. Meanwhile, you will work with a health care provider to address the underlying causes for your negative emotions.
If you or a loved one needs additional support, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center 24/7 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants. Call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat. You can also see a list of key psychological health resources here.
- American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, fifth edition
- Crunk, A.E., Burke, L.A., Robinson, E.H.M. (2017). Complicated grief: An Evolving theoretical landscape. Journal of Counseling and Development, 95. doi: 10.1002/jcad.12134.
- Delaney, E.M., Holloway, K.J., Miletich, D.M., Webb-Murphy, J.A., Lanouette, N.M. (2017). Screening for complicated grief in a military health clinic, Military Medicine, 182, 1751-1756. doi: 10.7205/MILMED-D-17-00003
- Shear, M.K. (2015). Complicated grief. New England Journal of Medicine, 372 (2), 153-60. doi: 10.1056/NEJMcp1315618
- Shear, M.K., Simon, N., Wall, M., Zisook, S., Neimeyer, R., Duan, N., ...Keshaviah, A. (2011). Complicated grief and related bereavement issues for DSM-5, Depression and Anxiety, 28, 103-117. doi: 10.1002/da.20780
- Wetherell, J.K. (2012). Complicated grief therapy as a new treatment approach, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience. 14(2), 159-166.