The Pathology Of Grief

The majority of us will lose a parent in our lifetime.  The death of a parent is a traumatic emotional experience which affects the rest of peoples’ lives. Studies show that losing a parent changes an adult both psychologically and biologically, and can become pathological.  The experience of grief is universal because all fully developed human brains are wired to respond to emotional pain with the same basic pathways.

Dr. Nikole Benders-Hadi, a psychiatrist with Doctor On Demand told Fatherly. “In cases where a death is unexpected, such as with an acute illness or traumatic accident, adult children may remain in the denial and anger phases of the loss for extended periods of time…[leading to] diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder or even PTSD, if trauma is involved.”

The grief process involves retrieving memories and dwelling on the past.  Short term physiological changes might include headaches, stomach aches, dizziness, tightness in the chest too much sleep, too little sleep, overeating, or lack of appetite.  In the long-term, grief puts the entire body at risk. A handful of studies have found links between unresolved grief and hypertension, cardiac events, immune disorders, and even cancer.  

While the physical symptoms are relatively consistent, the psychological impacts are unpredictable. In the twelve months following the loss of a parent, the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders considers it healthy for adults who have lost their parents to experience a range of contradictory emotions, including sadness, anger, rage, anxiety, numbness, emptiness, guilt, remorse, and regret. It is normal to withdraw from friends and activities; it is normal to throw oneself into work.

Sudden, violent death puts survivors at higher risk of developing a grief disorder, and when an adult child has a fractured relationship with a parent, the death can be doubly painful — even if the bereaved shuts down and pretends not to feel the loss. This may explain why studies have shown that young adults are more affected by parental loss than middle-aged adults.

Gender, of both the parent and child, can especially influence the contours of the grief response.

Studies suggest that daughters have more intense grief responses than sons, but men who lose their parents may be slower to move on.

“These factors do affect the ability to accept and process grief.” Studies have also shown that loss of a father is more associated with the loss of personal mastery — purpose, vision, belief, commitment, and knowing oneself. Losing a mother, on the other hand, elicits a more raw response. This can be attributed to the often close, nurturing nature of the mother-child relationship.

Grief becomes pathological, according to the DSM, when the bereaved are so overcome that they are unable to carry on with their lives. Preliminary studies suggest this occurs in about 1 percent of the healthy population, and about 10 percent of the population that had previously been diagnosed with a stress disorder.  Grief can become a diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder if there is a ‘persistence of grief reactions’ where the grieving adult has severe challenges meeting social, occupational, and other expected, important life functions.  

Untreated and unresolved grief can spiral into anxiety and depression. Children often believe they should have done more to protect their parents which leads to guilt, shame, and self-loathing.  In many cases, therapy may be the only way to get a grieving son or daughter back on his or her feet.

As attorneys who specialize in nursing home neglect and abuse cases that often involve the wrongful death of a parent, we are aware of the difficulties that family members have during the grieving process and attempt to assist in overcoming the grief.  If a loved one has been neglected or abused at a nursing home, please contact us for help.

Gary W. Poliakoff is the senior partner at Poliakoff & Associates who specializes in nursing home neglect and abuse cases, and has a blog called



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