Each of the 2.5 million annual deaths in the United States directly affects four other people, on average. For most of these people, the suffering is finite — painful and lasting, of course, but not so disabling that 2 or 20 years later the person can barely get out of bed in the morning.
For some people, however — an estimated 15 percent of the bereaved population, or more than a million people a year — grieving becomes what Dr. M. Katherine Shear, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia, calls “a loop of suffering.” And these people, Dr. Shear added, can barely function. “It takes a person away from humanity,” she said of their suffering, “and has no redemptive value.”
This extreme form of grieving, called complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder, has attracted so much attention in recent years that it is one of only a handful of disorders under consideration for being added to the DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association’s handbook for diagnosing mental disorders, due out in 2012.
Some experts argue that complicated grief should not be considered a separate condition, merely an aspect of existing disorders, like depression or post-traumatic stress. But others say the evidence is convincing.