Even after all the funerals in Newtown are over, the mourning will long go on. If experience is any guide, the heartbreak there will slowly heal with time. But for some who lost loved ones, the pain of bereavement may remain intense and constant, even years afterward.
Psychiatry calls this ‘complicated grief.’ ‘Complicated’ meaning not complex but that the healing process that normally occurs, after even a sudden and terrible loss, goes somehow awry. It develops a complication, like an infection in a wound. Complicated grief is under consideration to become a new official diagnosis, and psychiatrists have developed specific therapy to help patients who become “stuck” for years in their grief. Carey Goldberg, of WBUR’s CommonHealth blog, explains:
One beautiful July evening, as 62 year-old Gerrit Schuurman was cooking dinner, he told his wife, Cynthia, that he was having some trouble swallowing. Two days later he was dead, killed by an aneurysm his surgeons said was like a ticking time bomb in his brain.
Numb, disbelieving and alone after 37 years of marriage, Cynthia soldiered on. She left Germany, where she and Gerrit had been living, and returned to her native Boston. She found work as a teacher trainer for a non-profit, spent time with her new granddaughter.
On the outside, Cynthia was doing all right. But not inside. Every pleasure was soured by sadness; she obsessed about Gerrit’s death — “Why did this happen? Could I have done something?” — and the parallels with her father’s sudden death when she was just 13. The grief just wasn’t letting up, and it threatened to break her.
“I thought, well, I’m going to feel better in a year. People always say the first year is very difficult,” she recalled. “Other people told me the second year is even worse in the grief process,” she said. “And the second year came and it was worse. So I thought okay, maybe by the third year I’m going to feel better. But I was going through the motions. I was functioning but inside I was a mess. I was very, very upset and crying when nobody was around…About the third year, I was in a class, I was teaching my students and I broke down in the middle of a sentence.”
“The day I had that ‘mini-meltdown,’ I sent up a silent prayer to God and the universe saying, ‘I need help, please help me.’ So on the way home on the train there was a big sign, a big poster, an advertisement poster for ‘complicated grief.’ It said, ‘Are you crying all the time? Are you depressed? Are you stuck in grief?’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s me, it has my name on it.’”
Dr. Naomi Simon, head of the complicated grief program at Massachusetts General Hospital — the program Cynthia noticed in the subway ad — says people can ‘get stuck’ in grief for a wide variety of reasons. Continue reading