Studies Prove Need for Immediate Attention to Grief—And to Label it Correctly

The danger to grievers is manifest and potentially fatal!

Posted Jan 05, 2010

Identify A Problem Then Solve It—Right?

• If we identified the cause of a doubling of heart attack rates for males and trebling for females, as a society, we'd mobilize all our resources to deal with that, wouldn't we?

• If we became aware of a direct link to a suicide rate 242% higher than the norm, we'd rev up our collective engines to find a solution, wouldn't we?

• If we learned of circumstances that create a 153% increase in serious or fatal auto accidents, we'd  rush to do something about it, wouldn't we?

You'd think we'd stop at nothing to solve those issues and prevent so many preventable deaths, but you would be wrong.

The Finnish Study Laid It All Out 23 Years Ago, But It's Still Ignored

Those three bullet points—and several others—were identified in the Finnish study, Mortality after Bereavement [J. Kaprio, M. Koskenvuo, and H. Rita], published in the American Journal of Public Health in March, 1987. The study followed 95,647 widowed persons from 1972-1976, and was one of the most comprehensive and definitive studies ever done on the impact of grief.

It gives statistical support for what those of us who labor in the trenches of grief have been observing for many decades. It identifies the dangerous and immediate by-product of the grief caused by the death of a long-term spouse.

Immediate because the doubling and trebling of the heart attack rates occurs in the first week following the death of the spouse. The two other bullet-point facts also represent what is liable to happen in the very near-term following the death.

Yet with all that statistical information available to us, we're still operating within a mental health community that insists on waiting between six months and two years after a death, to pronounce "complicated bereavement" to begin to acknowledge and address the grief.

Too Little, Too Late—And Complications Can Be Fatal

The problem should be obvious: the possibility of dying from the impact of grief at the death of a spouse, either by natural causes, by accident, or by self-infliction, is highest in the first few weeks after the death.

Yet "complicated bereavement" according to the DSM-IV allegedly kicks in 6-12 months after the stressor [their word, not ours].

Tell that to the surviving relatives and friends who lost someone within days or weeks.

When Is it Time to Begin to Recover?

Here's a section from The Grief Recovery Handbook  [p.17] that addresses the crucial question about when a person should begin addressing their grief.

One of our saddest experiences involves people who have signed up to participate in a Grief Recovery Seminar or a Grief Recovery Outreach Program but don't appear at the session. Occasionally, they call to cancel saying, "My therapist said I'm not ready to do my grief work yet."

Here is a little two-part quiz graphically answers the question, "When do I begin to recover?"

1. If you fell down and gashed your leg and blood was pouring out, would you immediately seek medical attention, yes or no? The obvious answer is yes.

2. If circumstances and events conspired to break your heart, should you seek attention immediately, or would you allow yourself to bleed to death emotionally? Pick one!

Is it ever too soon to begin to recover? No. The first ten years of our grief recovery careers were devoted to helping funeral directors, cemeterians, and clergy better assist grieving people. Clearly, those professionals are helping grievers in the hours and days immediately following a death. It is never too soon to address your grief.

It's Grief—Not a Stressor

Speaking of grief, we are sick and tired of the use of euphemisms for grief.

Grief is not stress and the causes are not stressors, the causes are grief-producing losses.

Grief is not depression—although some of the symptoms are parallel.

Grief is also not:
• Pressure
• Tension
• Strain

Furthermore, grief is definitely not Trauma nor Post Traumatic Stress—the mis-diagnosis du jour—which joins two wrong words, stress and trauma, into a totally inaccurate phrase and moves grieving people away from the possibility of recovery.

And to hammer home the point, we don't believe that there is such a thing as "complicated bereavement." We believe that complications are the result of the delay or absence of immediate attention to grief.

Grief Defined

Our definition of grief is: "The normal and natural conflicting feelings caused by a change or an end in a familiar pattern of behavior."

That definition means that for most people those conflicting feelings are happening right now. There's no need to wait six months or a year to let them fester, before discovering and addressing them.

Calling grief anything else confuses grievers. And to be fair to them, they are already dazed and confused by the loss or losses that correctly define them as grievers.

As long as wrong words are used, there will be no solutions. Grieving people have been known to hide behind the diagnostic words that are fed to them by professionals. Under the shield of incorrect language, there can be no realistic or practical help for people who are struggling with the normal and natural, yet painful reactions to death, divorce and other grief producing events.

As long as wrong language and concepts are invoked, the danger to grievers is manifest and potentially fatal.

Whether you're a mental or medical health professional, or just a normal person interacting with a family member or friend, you can be part of the solution instead of an extension of the problem.

The Articles section at features many articles we've written that lead to a greater awareness of correct and effective concepts and language about grief, and more importantly, about recovery from losses of all kinds. They can be read and/or downloaded without fees.