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Posted Friday September, 9th 2022

Is Prolonged Grief a Disorder? Exploring the New DSM Diagnosis

Time heals all wounds, the poets have written, but is that really the case when we lose a loved one? While grief professionals classify the first two years of mourning as early grief, many of them—and their clients—are keenly aware that grief changes our very concept of time altogether. Grief makes us cover up our clocks and mirrors. It makes us stop our watches at the exact moment when someone’s heart stopped beating, a resonant symbol of our longing for more time with them. It makes us plant flowers in their honor as the seasons change. And sometimes, it even makes us dread those seasons.

Recently, the American Psychiatric Association has put grief on a deadline. At a time when many people are experiencing immense and profound loss, some clinicians have begun to classify grieving processes that extend beyond a period of one year as symptomatic of prolonged grief disorder.

In some ways, this diagnostic addition to the DSM may benefit people who would’ve otherwise struggled to find affordable care; after all, the changes to the DSM mean that insurance companies now view this form of anguish and human suffering as a billable condition. Perhaps employers will even reconsider current limits on bereavement leave. And for the many grieving people whose pain has been long-lasting, and sometimes all-consuming, it reifies the suffering they may feel they’ve been asked to deny.

In other ways, because the diagnosis and its timestamp seem to pathologize a critical component of the human experience, it may send an implicit message—get over it—to these people, who already need therapeutic support.

In March, The New York Times published a piece on this new diagnosis, called “How Long Should It Take to Grieve?” Voices of those in favor or against the development were later included in the widely read and fiery opinion-page piece, “Prolonged Grief: A Mental Disorder or a Natural Process?” Here, Psychotherapy Networker’s Zach Taylor spoke with grief and trauma experts David Kessler, Donna Schuurman, and Frank Anderson about the pros and cons of the diagnosis for clients and the field itself.

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