Western culture does not fully acknowledge how psychologically devastating bereavement can be.

So it is always good to see new studies which help us understand bereavement. A fascinating new study in the Journal of Loss and Trauma investigates if bereavement can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is characterised by upsetting thoughts and images, distressing dreams and memories, and feelings of numbness and denial.  

132 people who had lost a close relative due to cancer completed a self-report measure of PTSD one month after their loss. Not many studies have asked this before so the authors didn’t really know what to expect.

Most of the respondents were widows who knew that their loved one was going to die for an average of one year and had spent time caring for them. At one month 30% were rated as having PTSD and another 26% had sub-clinical levels of PTSD.

Bereavement can be uncomfortable for other people. Sometimes people we know may even pretend not to see us in order to avoid making contact. People are often concerned that they will say the wrong thing. Or that their advance will be unwelcome. Rarely is this the case.

There may also be an expectation that we ought to be back to our usual self in a few weeks. Such expectations do not help the bereaved themselves who may feel their time for talking has passed and who are left to grieve alone.

For those experiencing loss the results of studies like this can therefore be hugely helpful in pointing to the fact that bereavement can be a traumatic experience.

The authors of the study also pointed to the importance of social support and how those with more social support were less distressed. For family members, friends, and colleagues it is important that you don’t avoid the subject or cross the street. It is almost impossible to say the wrong thing if your heart is in the right place.

Weeks, even months may have passed but it is always ok just to ask how things are. If you are stuck for what to say, just say that you don’t know what to say. Offer to help in any way you can. Ask if you can help by getting the groceries. Pass over your phone number with a message that the person is welcome to call anytime. Make time to go for coffee. But most of all just listen and try to understand.

Loss of a close friend, relative or spouse is one of the hardest things in life to bear. Ask yourself, who is it that I know who might need a bit of support right now?

To find out more about my work: http://www.profstephenjoseph.com


Kristensen, T. E., Elklit, A., & Karstoft, K. I. (2012). Posttraumatic stress disorder after bereavement: Early psychological sequelae of losing a close relative due to terminal cancer. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 17, 508-521.

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