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Time eases the pain of grieving


How do people cope with losing a beloved one? Psychologists from the University of Würzburg have investigated this question in a new study including more than 500 participants. Their results correct some common misconceptions about grieving.

Dead Rose
Grieving is a process that takes a long time. The second year after the loss is decisive as to whether the impairments will decrease or stay at a constant high level.

The husband died from cancer, the daughter perished in a plane crash. The world seemed to fall apart for the wife in the one and the parents in the other case. And always sufferers at first feel that their world is turned upside down. How do people feel after such a blow of fate? How do they overcome the loss, how does their grief develop? And how long does it take until the worst is over? Psychologists from the University of Würzburg have looked into these questions; they present their results in the latest issue of the psychology journal Zeitschrift für Gesundheitspsychologie.

More than 500 persons, most of whom had lost a partner or child, described their experience after the loss by answering a new questionnaire. This allowed the scientists to measure different aspects of mourning. "We were mainly interested in the impact of the time since the loss, that is the duration of the grieving process," explains Joachim Wittkowski, a senior professor at the Faculty of Human Sciences of the University of Würzburg. He conducted the study with Dr. Rainer Scheuchenpflug, a research fellow at the Department of Psychology III.

Distinct changes in the first years

In a nutshell, the changes are particularly profound in the first two and a half years following the death of a beloved one when analysing the answers of persons whose loss dates back by about the same period of time. "In the first year, painful thoughts and emotions become much more intense as does the feeling of closeness to the deceased person," Joachim Wittkowski sums up the central outcome of the study. In the subsequent twelve to 18 months, the intensity decreases accordingly. Women suffer more from the loss of a close person than men.

Another result: In the long term, which means beyond the period of three years, both the impairments and the feeling of closeness to the deceased person decrease continually. "It is quite interesting that as the most painful stage of the grieving process reaches its end, both the positive capabilities of experience and behaviour increase and the capability to commiserate and feel with others," Wittkowski further. This trend remains stable even more than ten years after the loss. Feelings of guilt remain almost unchanged at a medium intensity level.

Coping with the loss goes along with personal growth

From the scientists' view, the results, which are unique for the German-speaking region, correct some common beliefs with regard to grieving. "In addition to pain, grieving is associated with personal growth which the affected persons experience as positive in hindsight," Joachim Wittkowski explains. Coping with the loss of a beloved person could hence lead to a positive change of the sufferer. "Time does ease the pain of grieving, but it does not make it disappear," the author says.

Grieving is a process that takes a long time as the study shows. For many mourners, it is not over after a few months or after the traditional year of grieving. "Our results show that the second year after the loss is decisive as to whether the impairments will decrease or stay at a constant high level, which means is the coping process normal or does it require treatment," the scientists further. According to them, this is crucial to diagnose an ongoing complex mourning reaction.

Wittkowski, J. & Scheuchenpflug, R. (2015). Zum Verlauf´" normalen" Trauerns. Verlusterleben in Abhängigkeit von seiner Dauer. Zeitschrift für Gesundheitspsychologie, 23, 169-176. DOI: 10.1026/0943-8149/a000145


Prof. Dr. Joachim Wittkowski,

Dr. Rainer Scheuchenpflug, Phone: +49 931 31-82185

By Gunnar Bartsch