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date: 22 October 2017

Grief Therapy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Please check back later for the full article.

Death and loss are universal human experiences, yet understanding of and attitudes toward expressing grief have shifted across time. The earliest psychological conceptualization of grief pathologized “holding on” to the lost object, a notion that has since been rejected in favor of continuing bonds that are adaptive in grief. Similarly, early stage theory suggested a linear progression toward resolution and acceptance of loss, which has been criticized in favor of approaches that allow for natural regulatory processes of attending to the loss and reengaging with a world changed by loss. Grief is no longer regarded solely as looking back on a past life with the deceased, but rather is oriented toward creating and reconstructing a meaningful present and future that accommodates the loss and its impact.

Most people respond adaptively to loss by relying on their internal and social support systems. However, a significant subset of grievers struggle with complicated grief, which is characterized by intense longing for the deceased, causes impairment in various life domains, and extends beyond the period of grieving that is considered normal for the population and culture. Grief therapy is most appropriate and advantageous for grievers who self-identify the need for additional support, and this tends to happen among those who are struggling disproportionately. Complicated grief shares features with other common psychiatric diagnoses (e.g., major depressive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder). Treatment for complicated grief targets the common symptoms among these disorders as well as the grief-specific manifestations of distress that are concentrated on issues of coping, attachment, meaning, and behavior.