Medicating grief

Many of us who work with grieving people have had mixed feelings about medicating grief reactions. The intensity of sorrow, shock, anger and distress that we feel in response to the loss of a loved one can at times feel overwhelming. For those who suffer such intensity, there is a great desire to numb the pain, if not with drugs and alcohol but with psychiatric medications.

In early years of my grief therapy practice, I did not feel that the pain of grief should be medicated except in extreme situations. In those days there were no really successful psychiatric medications. Early antidepressants had too many side effects, and drugs like Valium, to calm anxiety, could become addictive.

More recently I have changed my mind. I now see that some clients truly need relief from the intensity of their feelings of loss. Today’s antidepressants, anti-anxiety and sleep medications are more effective. They can be useful for taking the edge off, when prescribed in the right doses by a psychiatrist. Easing the discomfort for some of my grieving clients has allowed them to express and examine their feelings more deeply and to be more effective in moving toward recovering from their loss.

It is important when prescribing medication to distinguish between depression and grief. Many symptoms of grief can be similar to those of depression. One way to distinguish if one is grieving rather than depressed is whether there has been any kind of recent loss.

It is very tempting when we are in pain to want it to stop no matter what. If you feel you need extra help to lessen your pain, seek out an expert, usually a psychiatrist, who can help you find the right medication. Remember that medication can be a useful tool but not forever.

by Judy Tatelbaum, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, public speaker, and author.
Journeys with Grief: A Newsletter to Help in Bereavement, copyright Hospice Foundation of America, 2019.