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Grief and depression present similarly in patients who are dying. Conventional symptoms (e.g., frequent crying, weight loss, thoughts of death) used to assess for depression in these patients may be imprecise because these symptoms are also present in preparatory grief and as a part of the normal dying process. Preparatory grief is experienced by virtually all patients who are dying and can be facilitated with psychosocial support and counseling. Ongoing pharmacotherapy is generally not beneficial and may even be harmful to patients who are grieving. Evidence of disturbed self-esteem, hopelessness, an active desire to die and ruminative thoughts about death and suicide are indicative of depression in patients who are dying. Physicians should have a low threshold for treating depression in patients nearing the end of life because depression is associated with tremendous suffering and poor quality of life
Distinguishing between grief and depression in patients who are dying can be difficult. Many of the signs and symptoms traditionally used to diagnose depression are also present in patients who are grieving (Figure 1). Weight loss, anorexia and sleep disturbance, for example, might reflect depression, grief, poor control of physical symptoms or the normal physiologic changes associated with dying. Survey instruments designed to detect depression have not been well studied in patients who are dying and lack specificity because questions addressing somatic, functional and affective criteria can generate false-positive results. The Geriatric Depression Scale, for example, rates frequent crying. Crying can reflect depression or normal grief in dying patients. Differentiating between preparatory grief and depression is essential because of therapeutic implications. While some researchers have suggested that grief and depression differ in significant ways, evidence supporting such distinctions is lacking.
Depression shares common features with grief. Misdiagnosis can result in overlooking depression when it is present or inappropriately treating grief. Depression and grief are different conditions that require different treatments although, clinically, they often overlap. Patients with depression may benefit from counseling and pharmacotherapy.
Preparatory grief, as introduced by Kubler-Ross in "On Death and Dying,"is "that [grief that] the terminally ill patient has to undergo in order to prepare himself for his final separation from this world." Preparatory grief is the normal grief reaction to perceived losses experienced by persons who are dying. (The terms anticipatory grief and anticipatory mourning are commonly used to refer to grief experienced by family members or friends before the death of a loved one. The grief experienced by patients as they prepare for their impending death is different from anticipatory grief as defined by the extensive body of existing literature. Consequently, preparatory grief, as defined by Kubler-Ross in reference to grief experienced by the dying person, is used here.)
Persons who are dying prepare for their death by mourning the losses implicit in death. The anticipated separation from loved ones is an obvious one. Simple pleasures of living may be grieved. People may reflect on their past and relive great moments and disappointments, and mourn for missed opportunities. Looking to the future, they may grieve the loss of much-anticipated experiences such as a child's graduation or the birth of a grandchild. In the present, the person who is dying usually experiences a radical change in self-image. Previously independent, the person may now be weak and dependent on others for even the most basic needs. The old self-image has been lost and is grieved as the person who is dying and their family adjusts to a new, more fragile sense of self.
Grief, which is often experienced as a painful tearing sensation, is also a process by which the grieving person adjusts to a radical change in the relationship between the self and that which is being lost--an object of attachment or love called the "loss object." Loss objects can be people or they can be simple pleasures like drinking coffee in the morning. The loss object can be a person's self image. Grief can be understood as the physical, psychological and cognitive changes that occur in response to an abrupt change in the relationship between the grieving person and the loss object. The grieving person moves, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, toward a new equilibrium as the changed relationship is redefined with the loss object.
Preparatory grief, while normal, can be facilitated through proper support. Grief per se rarely requires pharmacologic intervention. Inappropriate use of antidepressants or anxiolytics for treating grief may result in iatrogenic complications that have little, if any, benefit.
Differentiating Between Preparatory Grief and Depression: A Diagnostic Dilemma
Some patients and their families will be readily able to identify depression. Others, however, may not be able to differentiate possible depression from grief or the normal changes that occur in the dying process. The following points highlight differences between preparatory grief and depression.
Temporal Variation. Grief is often experienced in waves, which are usually triggered in response to a specific loss. New waves of grief may be "predictably" triggered in response to a new loss (e.g., when an ambulatory patient becomes bedridden), or "unpredictably" triggered by seemingly minor incidents (e.g., hearing a treasured song or noticing a stranger's resemblance to a loved one).
In contrast, persistent flat affect or dysphoria that pervades all aspects of patients' lives is characteristic of depression.
Progress with Time. In most cases, patients progress through grief and it slowly diminishes in intensity over time. Patients may periodically experience intense waves of grief (an acute grief reaction), but the overall intensity wanes.
Negative Self-Image. Patients who are grieving usually have a normal self-image. Some patients may have a loss of self-esteem because of the debilitation and dependency caused by progressing disease. When these feelings are disproportionate to a patient's situation, underlying depression should be considered. Patients who are depressed may have a sense of worthlessness and disturbed self-esteem.
Anhedonia. The ability to feel pleasure is not lost in persons who are grieving. Most will still look forward to special occasions and visits from family and friends. Anhedonia is a clue to clinical depression.
Hopelessness. A person who is grieving maintains a sense of hope. Hope may shift, for example, from the hope for a cure to the hope for prolonging life to the hope to live comfortably and well for the duration of life, but it is not lost in persons who are dying. Pervasive hopelessness, however, is a hallmark of depression.
Response to Support. Patients who are grieving often need social interaction to help them through the grieving process. Social support enables patients to tolerate the pain of loss while providing the necessary assistance for completion of grief work. Patients may withdraw socially during the grief process, but this withdrawal is usually a temporary pause for reflection. When patients have processed their acute grief, they usually slowly reenter society. Social withdrawal can be a manifestation of untreated physical symptoms such as pain. In advanced stages of dying, social withdrawal can also naturally occur when the person who is dying begins to let go of social attachments.
Agitation. Persons who are grieving may be agitated during the early stages but usually respond to support and counseling. Agitation and hyperarousal often diminish or resolve with time.
When agitation is present in patients with depression, it may persist without much response to supportive measures.
A persistent, active desire for an early death in a patient whose symptomatic and social needs have been reasonably met is suggestive of clinical depression.
Management of Grief
Reflect. Mirror the patient's emotions. Example: If the patient says, "Why did I have to get this horrible disease?" respond with "I can see that you are angry."
Empathize. Try to make a personal connection with the patient. Example: "I can imagine that you are going through rough times. It must be hard not to be able to get out of bed. What can I do to help?"
Lead. Guided questions can help facilitate the grief process. Example: "What concerns do you have about how your loved ones will do after you are gone?" or "When you went through difficult situations in the past, how did you handle them?" Identifying coping strategies that the patient used in the past can be useful so that they can try the strategies that have already been effective for them.
Improvise. Respect the emotional boundaries of patients and offer support within those boundaries. The physician's approach must be tailored to individual patients. What might work with one patient might fail with another. For example, some patients may desire support through talking; others may just want a supportive presence. Some may want time alone; others may cope best by continuing established routines. Patients may suddenly change coping strategies, which requires flexibility on the part of the physician to be able to respond appropriately.
Educate. Explain that grief often comes in waves. Let patients and family members know that people grieve in different ways. It is important to explain that anger experienced by the patients and families toward the self, the situation and others is a common and normal response when facing a terminal illness. Identifying, validating and channeling constructive outlets for anger helps decrease conflicts between patients and their families.
Validate the Experience. Reflect to the patient the normalcy of the experience. Example: "It is okay to cry," or "It seems to me you are responding normally to a very difficult situation."
Recall. Many patients who are dying want to look back over their lives and do a review of their life. Physicians can help by asking about accomplishments, special stories or legacies that patients may wish to hand down to future generations.
- Periyakoil, Vyjeyanthi S., Hallenbeck, James; Identifying and Managing Preparatory Grief and Depression at the End of Life; American Family Physician; March 1, 2002; Vol. 65, Issue 5The article above contains foundational information. Articles below contain optional updates.
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