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New Form of Psychotherapy Found Effective for Grief

  • Jessica Berman

A new form of treating grief following the death of a loved one has been found to be more successful than conventional psychotherapy in some patients.

Two years ago, Heather Chatterjee's, daughter, Renee, was killed in an automobile accident.

"There's no sadness or any emotion that you can feel that describes the agony," she said. "It becomes physical pain. It becomes debilitating. It's the yearning and the longing."

Ms. Chatterjee suffers from "complicated grief," a condition that afflicts an estimated 10 to 20 percent of bereaved individuals following the loss of a loved one.

Complicated grief includes intense feelings that last six months or longer, according to psychiatrist Katherine Shear of the University of Pittsburgh.

"It's characterized by symptoms of intense separation distress, yearning and longing for the person who died, and traumatic distress which is recurrent, intrusive images of the person who died," she said.

Experts say people suffering from complicated grief do not respond well to traditional psychotherapy.

So, Dr. Shear and colleagues developed a new form of treatment designed to get those with complicated grief to both accept their loss and focus on their personal life goals.

The therapy includes "revisiting" - tape recording the patient telling the story of the loved one's death - and having the patient listen to the story daily, to help lessen the intensity of emotion. The patient also tells the loved one things they didn't get to hear in life.

In a study comparing the two types of therapy, 51 percent of people with complicated grief were helped compared to 28 percent of people receiving traditional psychotherapy.

Dr. Shear was heartened by the results.

"People who got complicated grief treatment were much more likely to tell us that the treatment made a very dramatic difference in their symptoms," she said. "And sometimes they said the treatment even changed their lives."

Among them is Heather Chatterjee, who has come to accept the death of her daughter.

"It's something that will be with me for the rest of my life. But it's ok. I can go on now," she said.

The study on complicated grief therapy was published in Journal of the American Medical Association.