Exploring Local Efforts To Treat Complicated Grief

Katie Burns holds a picture of her daughter at a grief counselling center.
Katie Burns holds a picture of her daughter at a grief counselling center. (Photo credit: Roger Lumpkin, ideastream)
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Katie Burns remembers the day she found out her baby wouldn’t be delivered alive. It was a Friday, only a few days after her last checkup had shown everything with her unborn daughter was going well.

"When they put the Doppler on my stomach, and there was no heartbeat I knew immediately that she was gone," Burns said. "It was like I floated out of my body and I was watching it happen to somebody else… I couldn’t believe that I was going to have to deliver a baby that would never cry."

After the initial stage of shock, Burns and her husband found themselves suffering from depression and a sense that their lives had been taken away from them.

Though they were able to find support in family, friends, and counselling immediately after their loss, others aren’t so lucky. Some 10 percent of the bereaved population develop a condition known as complicated grief, in which the natural process of recovering after losing a loved one is seriously impaired, according to Dr. Katherine Shear, a psychiatrist and the Director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University.

"We kind of think of it as somewhat analogous to a wound that has an infection," Shear said. "So we say that wound is complicated by an infection and it’s not healing properly."

Shear has found that people who suffer from complicated grief have higher rates of depression and anxiety, and are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts.

"There is some evidence that physically they don’t do so well either, that there may be a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease in particular, or cancer," Shear continued.

Traditionally, counselors have treated complicated grief like they treat depression. But Shear argues for a more “tailored” approach. It includes helping patients to stop second-guessing themselves about things they could have done differently in regards to the death, as well as guiding them to re-engage with the world.

Helping patients access more “tailored” therapies for bereavement is the philosophy at Cornerstone of Hope, a grief counselling center in Independence. Ty Morgan, a counsellor at the center, says that another big part of overcoming complicated grief is working to accept the new reality of the loss.

"The process of grief is one of assimilating a new reality into your existence," said Morgan. "What was can no longer be. And that’s really difficult for most people, because for most people they liked the way things were. They didn’t want to change."

Another aspect to treatment is recognizing that people suffer differently based on different types of losses. That’s why experts recommend counseling for different types of grief, like infant loss, traumatic loss… or loss that has unraveled into mental illness like depression or anxiety disorder.

As more research into the long-term physical and mental consequences of unresolved grief unfolds, the academic and clinical communities are working to develop more targeted therapies that will help people adapt to their new realities in the absence of a loved one.


Grief Support Resources

Cornerstone of Hope: http://www.cornerstoneofhope.org/

Hospice of the Western Reserve: http://www.hospicewr.org/patients-and-caregivers/grief-and-loss/support-groups

Cleveland Clinic Bereavement Specific Support Groups: http://my.clevelandclinic.org/patients-visitors/support-therapy/bereavement/support-groups

The Grief Care Place: http://www.thegriefcareplace.org/home.html

Joel’s Place for Children: http://www.joelsplaceforchildren.org/

National Alliance for Grieving Children: https://childrengrieve.org/programs-ohio

Hospice of Medina: http://www.hospiceofmedina.org/hmc-the-robertson-bereavement-center

Mount Carmel: http://www.mountcarmelhealth.com/grief-loss

Mercy Medical Center: https://www.cantonmercy.org/grief-support

Access Jewish Cleveland Bereavement Support Group: http://www.accessjewishcleveland.org/programs/b/bereavement-support-grou...

Lifebanc Counselling Support: https://www.lifebanc.org/donor-families-and-recipients/grief-support/cou...

Emily's Gift of Hope: http://www.emilysgiftofhope.org/support

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