Grief is one of the deepest, most powerful emotions for humans because it coincides with a death of a loved one. Humans are a social species that thrive on relationships and when one of those relationships ends abruptly, grief is the natural response to that. Deep sorrow, like grief, can have a tremendous impact on the mental health of an individual depending on the depth of the relationship and the length of the grieving process.
When Does Grief Impact Mental Health?
Grief begins to influence one’s mental health when the pain and sorrow do not ease over time, or in some cases worsen. Some signs of this are the individual emotionally withdrawing from other people they care about. The predominant feelings during grief are to feel lost and empty. The general mood throughout major depressive disorder is to feel miserable and unhappy in anything you are attempting. On a subconscious level, one may be protecting themselves emotionally so they do not have to feel the same emotions over the loss of another individual. Another sign that grief is impacting one’s mental health is if they are struggling to accept the death of the person who passed.
Everyone’s grieving process is different and the length of the grieving process is dependent upon the individual. This makes it difficult to identify when grief is beginning to impact someone’s mental health.
Research that began in the 1980’s lead to the understanding of long term-grief and the acknowledgment of complicated bereavement disorder. This disorder is defined as chronic grief and the symptoms of grief do not improve after many months. Some of the symptoms include:
- An intense focus on the loss
- Difficulty accepting their death
- Withdrawal or detachment from family and friends and other social activities
- Difficulty maintain daily routines
- A general sense of numbness
- The belief that life is without meaning or purpose
This prolonged is analogous to a wound complication that is trying to heal. I am reminded of a cut on an arm and typically a scab serves as a natural band-aid in order to help the cut heal. There are some things that can interfere with the scab of grief so that healing does not occur. One such complication is that of maladaptive thoughts. Those are pervasive thoughts such as “I am guilty,” “I am bad,” “it’s all my fault.” Sometimes dysfunctional behaviors also can interfere with adaptation to grief. This would be someone who would think that they should not look at any pictures of the person who died, or will not go to any places that they had shared together, or maybe one begins to drink alcohol regularly to hopefully numb the pain.
To attempt to remain attached or to detach…that is the question.
Sigmund Freud said that the work of grief is to detach from the person who has died. In some ways, there must be some truth to that but in other ways, I find that statement to be somewhat absurd. I personally think that it is very important to find some symbolic, psychological and meaningful way to remain attached the close one who has died.
When my brother died, I spent time designing a tattoo that would represent what he meant to me. I chose an Aztec symbol that represented “protector” and attached it to a tattooed rosary that went all the way around my neck and back to the Aztec symbol just over my heart with his initials within the symbol. Here I was, nearly 50 years of age, and had never in my life had a tattoo nor any piercings. Yet, I found that the 4 hours on the tattoo table was very cathartic and it was a form of grieving for me. My brother was fond of tattoos and I kept thinking that he would respect the pain and sacrifice I was experiencing in honor of him. Now every day I have an opportunity when getting my day started to look in the mirror at this beautiful representation of his life and I find myself remaining attached in a very special way.
Mental health professionals who are specialized in grief. The individual experiencing deep grief should accept the fact that they may need help grieving and should begin the process of looking for professionals who can help. It can be intimidating but it is the first step to regaining your former self. Many mental health professionals focus on therapy rather than medication to work through and resolve one’s ongoing grief. It is important to investigate all modalities of treatment gently yet aggressively.