When is grief abnormal?


Today, do we turn grief into a medical condition when it’s a normal reaction to death and loss?

When does grief become abnormal? And if we don’t see it in medical terms soon enough, do we lose chances to help?

Mental health professionals are divided.

Some say grief shouldn’t be seen as a medical condition because:

  • The emotional pain of grief is a normal reaction to loss, in both humans and other living beings
  • Grief is expressed differently in different cultures, so what’s normal for one group will be different to what’s normal for another
  • It is managed through religious and social rituals, so there’s no place for medicine to complicate that
  • Depression and anxiety already cover the emotional problems it can cause and there are already treatments for these.

Those who argue grief should be seen as a medical condition say:

  • Intense yearning for the dead person is different to depression or anxiety
  • If that yearning continues excessively, that’s the abnormal part
  • That abnormal reaction can lead to other psychological problems and even physical disorders
  • Treatment for prolonged grief is different to treatment for depression.

Today we understand that about 12 per cent of us will have intense grief reactions that persist for more than six months. If this ‘prolonged bereavement’ occurs for more than 12 months, it’s considered abnormal.

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