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Long Term Grief Can Lead to Memory Loss, Study Reports

Update Date: Mar 19, 2013 10:38 AM EDT
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Suffering the loss of a loved one can take a toll on the mental and physical wellbeing of the individual, and although the mourning period usually subsides for the majority of people, those who cannot cope with the loss can suffer from severe mental distress. People who continue to grieve over a long period of time have difficulty living and enjoying their lives. According to a new study, researchers found that people suffering from long-term grief might have difficulty recalling certain memories.

The researchers of the study, Donald Robinaugh, a graduate student and Richard McNally, a psychology professor both from Harvard University gathered adult participants who lost a spouse or a life partner within the past three years. The researchers noted that some of the adults had signs of long term and complicated grief where as others had the typical signs of mourning. The adults had to complete tasks that required them to use their past memories as well as imagine future scenarios with and without their deceased loved ones. The researchers provided positive and negative cue words for them to use in generating their stories.

After the series of tests was over, the researchers noted that the group that had the most difficulty coping with their losses also had a harder time to recall certain autobiographical memories from their past. This group tended to remember memories with the deceased but not many without the presence of the deceased. They also had difficulty creating future events without their loved ones, but did not have the same issues when they generated events with their loved ones.

"Most striking to us was the ease with which individuals with complicated grief were able to imagine the future with the deceased relative to their difficulty imagining the future without the deceased," the researchers noted. "They frequently imagined landmark life events-such as the birth of their first child or a 50th wedding anniversary-that had long since become impossible. Yet, this impossible future was more readily imagined than one that could, at that point, realistically occur."

These findings reveal that certain people might need an extra push during their coping periods. The researchers suggested that setting goals and accomplishing them could help people heal from the loss of a partner. There seems to be a larger underlying factor in why some people suffer from complicated grief. However, the researchers could not infer from their study as to what those factors were.

The study was published in Clinical Psychological Science.

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