By Leader Contributor Lydia Shoup

By now, deathcare professionals are well-acquainted with the pandemic’s devastating impacts, one of which is intense or prolonged grief.

As of March 2022, the revised edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) features the notable (and somewhat controversial) inclusion of what the medical community has termed prolonged grief disorder (PGD).

Declaring long-term grief as a diagnosable mental illness is a move that one must imagine comes in direct response to the accelerated death and grief brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

What Qualifies as Prolonged Grief Disorder?

Due to some overlapping symptoms, long-term grief is frequently mistaken for depression. In a statement made last fall, American Psychiatric Association (APA) CEO Saul Levin predicted that adding prolonged grief disorder to the DSM would result in a shared understanding among doctors of what long-term grief looks like in patients. Some medical researchers consider PGD a mental illness in its own right, while others worry it may lead to a string of false positives and set the grieving person back in their progress, writes a mental health contributor in The New York Times.

To assist with future diagnoses, the APA has established a timeline: Physicians can diagnose prolonged grief disorder after at least a year for adults and after at least six months for adolescents and children. Many clinicians expect medical treatment like grief-focused psychotherapy will help those whose grief has rendered them incapacitated or who simply cannot stop yearning for the loved one who has died.

What Are the Symptoms of PGD?

A recent study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders estimates 1 in 10 people suffers from this particular type of grief. The death of a child or a sudden or violent death may leave certain individuals especially vulnerable to its symptoms, which may include:

  • Difficulty re-engaging with family and friends
  • Trouble functioning or going about your daily activities
  • Persistent feelings of hopelessness and loneliness
  • An intense longing for the loved one who has died
  • An inability to accept that the death has occurred

What Does This Mean for the Deathcare Industry?

Deathcare experts are more than familiar with grief’s side effects, including those of complicated or prolonged grief. Do your best to ensure the families you serve are aware of all the grief support services at their disposal. In the future, it may even be necessary to help families distinguish between acute grief and prolonged grief disorder.

The mental health community’s acknowledgment of PGD will likely inspire conversations among your funeral home staff about how grief support and aftercare services may shift in response to the updated DSM-5. This may look like providing more resources to families after a death or making additional referrals to bereavement counselors and therapists in your area.

If you and your team wish to learn more about this newly defined version of grief, visit The Center for Prolonged Grief at Columbia University to access helpful online tools and resources.

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