The death of a loved one can be the most painful and disruptive experience a person will ever face.
For most, the grief subsides over time. But some continue to yearn for the lost loved one, experience waves of painful emotion, and feel hopeless about the future.
A new study looks into this complex process with researchers finding that individuals with complicated grief have difficulty remembering specific memories of the past — a symptom often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
However, complicated grief is framed by one notable exception: Individuals often retain their ability to recall specific memories for events that include the lost loved one.
Harvard researchers were intrigued by this cognitive paradox, and it raised another question: Do thoughts of lost loved ones also shape how people with complicated grief think about the future?
To find out, graduate student Donald Robinaugh and professor of psychology Richard McNally, Ph.D., recruited adults who had lost their spouse or life partner in the last one to three years. Some of the participants showed signs of complicated grief, while others showed signs of more typical bereavement.
The participants completed a series of tasks to assess their memory for past events and their ability to imagine future events, both with and without the deceased.
They were asked to generate specific events based on positive cue words (e.g., safe, happy, successful, loved) and negative cue words (e.g., hurt, sad, afraid, angry).
Researchers discovered that adults suffering from complicated grief showed deficits in their ability to recall specific autobiographical memories and to imagine specific events in the future compared to adults experiencing typical grief but only for events did not include the deceased.
They showed no difficulty generating events that included the partner they had lost.
“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,” said Robinaugh and McNally.
“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 point to a cognitive mechanism underlying the distressed yearning that is characteristic of complicated grief.
Investigators say the finding underscores the importance of generating goals and aspirations for the future after the loss of a loved one. According to the researchers, “setting goals and working toward them may be an important component of natural recovery from the disruptive and painful experience of loss.”
The study is published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.