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Grief: What to Do When It Never Ends

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Joyce sits alone in her bedroom every night. Most nights, she ends up bursting into tears over the loss of her husband of 30 years. The pain is searing. Since Frank died of Alzheimer's more than a year ago, she can't seem to move on with life. She spends nearly all of her time thinking about Frank.

Every day, Joyce wanders around the house looking at all the objects that remind her of Frank. She rarely goes out with friends anymore. She's depressed and just can't accept his death. Sometimes she wishes she were dead, and she wonders if her grief will ever lessen.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, 500,000 people die from Alzheimer's each year. This equates to one in every three seniors. Each of these people leaves behind several loved ones in a state of grief.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her 1969 groundbreaking book, On Death and Dying, lists five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. She notes that people usually do not go through these stages in order, and they may move back and forth between them.

Julie Axelrod, writing on psychcentral.com, states, "Coping with loss is an ultimately deeply personal and singular experience... the best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it will only prolong the natural process of healing."

Ms. Axelrod also states that "reaching [acceptance] is a gift not afforded to everyone."

According to the Center for Complicated Grief, "For most people, grief never completely goes away but recedes into the background." When grief does not lessen with time, the result is what is called "complicated grief." It has been estimated that 15% of people experiencing the death of a close loved one may develop this condition.

The Mayo Clinic, in an article entitled Complicated Grief, says:

While normal grief symptoms gradually start to fade over a few months, those of complicated grief linger or get worse. Complicated grief is like being in a chronic, heightened state of mourning. In complicated grief painful emotions are so long lasting and severe that you have trouble accepting the loss and resuming your own life.

The article lists the following symptoms of complicated grief:

• Extreme focus on the loss and reminders of the loved one
• Intense longing or pining for the deceased
• Problems accepting the death
• Numbness or detachment
• Preoccupation with your sorrow
• Bitterness about your loss
• Inability to enjoy life
• Depression or deep sadness
• Trouble carrying out normal routines
• Withdrawing from social activities
• Feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose
• Irritability or agitation
• Lack of trust in others

An article published on HarvardHealth.edu lists additional symptoms:

• Intrusive thoughts and images of the deceased person
• A painful yearning for his or her presence
• Denial of the death
• Imagining that the person is alive
• Desperate loneliness and helplessness,
• Anger
• Bitterness
• Wanting to die

One of the primary differences between normal grief and complicated grief is that the latter does not recede into the background with time. It consistently interferes with daily life and the eventual ability to move on.

If you suspect you may have complicated grief, it would be wise to seek professional help. The Mayo Clinic article states that "It can help you come to terms with your loss and reclaim a sense of acceptance and peace."

You may want to start with your primary care provider, who might refer you to a mental health specialist. Just remember that there is hope, and your grief may subside in time with appropriate treatment. You may be able to pick up the pieces and finally go forward with life.

Marie Marley is the award-winning author of Come Back Early Today: A Memoir of Love, Alzheimer's and Joy. Her website, www.ComeBackEarlyToday.com, contains a wealth of information for Alzheimer's caregivers.