Complications of Grief

Overview

Health problems that can develop from grieving include depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and physical illness. If you or someone you know experiences any of the following problems, contact a doctor or mental health professional for counseling, medicine, or both.

Depression

Depression is the most common condition that can develop when a person is grieving. It's common in adults who experience a divorce or death of a spouse or child.

High levels of anxiety

Anxiety also is common during the grieving process. But anxiety can last longer than expected. And it can also become intense and include extreme guilt. Anxiety can:

  • Make you feel like you are losing control of your emotions. Overwhelming fear is also common.
  • Trigger episodes of physical symptoms (anxiety attacks) that you might mistake for a heart attack. During an anxiety attack, you are likely to have a feeling of intense fear or terror, trouble breathing, chest pain or tightness, heartbeat changes, dizziness, sweating, and shaking.

Physical illness

People who have chronic medical conditions may have a recurrence or their symptoms may get worse when they are grieving. Adults who lose a loved one sometimes develop new health problems. Children can also have stress-induced physical problems while grieving.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

People who experience a traumatic loss are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an intense emotional and psychological response to a very disturbing or traumatic event, such as a rape, assault, natural disaster, accident, war, torture, or death. You can develop PTSD symptoms right after such an event. Or PTSD may develop months or even years later.

Symptoms may include:

  • Persistent and painful re-experiencing of the event through dreams (nightmares) or while awake (flashbacks).
  • Emotional numbness, or being unable to feel or express emotions toward family, friends, and loved ones.
  • Avoiding any reminders of the event.
  • Being easily angered, aroused, or startled (hyperarousal).

Counseling and medicines can be helpful for people who have PTSD.

Prolonged grief

Prolonged grief may also be called by other names, such as complicated grief. Symptoms include:

  • Longing and yearning for the loved one.
  • Intense loneliness.
  • Being upset by memories of the loved one.
  • Trouble doing everyday things without the loved one.

Prolonged grief is different from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With PTSD, a person is anxious and fearful that the traumatic event that caused the loss will occur again. In prolonged grief, anxiety results because the person is searching and yearning for their loved one.

If you or someone you know has symptoms of prolonged grief, seek help from a doctor or professional counselor specializing in grief counseling.

Suicidal thoughts

Sometimes when grieving, people have thoughts of ending their own lives. If you have been depressed or have had thoughts of suicide in the past, you may be at risk of having suicidal thoughts while grieving.

Talk to someone. Be open about your feelings. Reach out to a trusted family member or friend, your doctor, or a counselor.

Where to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, a mental health crisis, a substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, get help right away. You can:

  • Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
  • Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
  • Text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line.

Consider saving these numbers in your phone.

Credits

Current as of: June 16, 2022

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Jean S. Kutner MD, MSPH - Geriatric Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine