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Science. Communication. Community.

Pain Without Purpose: Memory Loss And The Grieving Process

The news of a lost loved one can spur a flood of simultaneous emotions: sadness, anger, nostalgia, pain.  But what if those same intense feelings came several times every day?

by Jessica Stoller-Conrad

A man stands alone in a cemetery. (Image credit: somnium! via Flickr)

When my grandfather passed away a few years ago, my dad was visibly upset.  This didn’t seem out of the ordinary.  However, when he heard the same news two days later – and appeared to be just as shocked – I became concerned.

I found out that my dad was experiencing some very unfortunately-timed memory loss, the result of a recent concussion on an icy sidewalk.  Though it was painful to watch him deal with these extreme emotions for a second time, luckily, he recovered within a matter of days.

But what if your memory loss wasn’t temporary, and that initial level of hurt returned several times every day?  And what if you never get the chance to move on?

It sounds nightmarish, but this scenario is a reality for many patients with age-related memory loss – like that associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease – and it creates a complicated situation for their caretakers.

“The grief [of losing a loved one] is a universal human experience.  It’s clearly present in every culture… and it’s universality suggests it must be an inherent part of humans,” says Dr. Peter Rabins, director of the Geriatric Psychiatry Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and co-author of The 36-Hour Day: A Family Guide to Caring for Persons with Alzheimer Disease, Related Dementia Illnesses and Memory Loss in Later Life.

Though grief hasn’t been pinpointed to a single biological source, the universal experience of grief may be explained by our human need for social connection, says science writer Hannah Waters in her blog at Scientific American.  From an evolutionary biology perspective, grieving might just be a difficult side effect of friendship, she writes.

While there may not be a biological need for the grieving process, Rabins says that grieving can be emotionally beneficial for healthy individuals.  But this process takes time, and may not carry the same benefit for individuals with memory loss.

“When you say to [a patient], ‘Your mother has been dead for 30 years,’ you often induce an acute grief reaction.  And sometimes, after 10 minutes…it can happen all over again,” says Rabins.  And from clinical observation, it appears that the patient experiences the same intense feelings of sadness every time he or she hears the news, Rabins says.

An acute reaction is normal, but it is usually followed by a step called integrated grief — when thoughts of the deceased person are occasional and no longer all-consuming, reports a 2009 review in World Psychiatry.  However, patients with severe memory loss may never experience this step, as it can take months or years to reach.

And this difficulty is something caretakers should consider when individuals with memory loss become confused about a deceased friend or family member, Rabins says.

“What we recommend is after you’ve done this two or three times, and you realize that it’s very upsetting to the person, and yet they can’t benefit from the grief process…you try not to correct the person, and avoid telling them that the person is deceased,” Rabins says.  “It’s better to change the subject, distract them, ask them to help you do something else.”

It might seem dishonest to avoid the reality of loss when a family member is confused, but Rabins says that caretakers should consider the overall well-being of persons with memory loss. Perhaps for many, a happy moment shared with a loving caretaker can be more beneficial than a troubling moment of honesty.


About jstoll01

Jessica began her journalistic endeavors as an embarrassingly informal food critic for her college newspaper. After dropping the fork and picking up a micropipettor, she spent two years as a genetics research technician and three years in graduate school before trying her hand at science writing. Upon receiving a Master’s degree in Biological Sciences from the University of Notre Dame in May 2012, Jessica participated in the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship program as a Science Desk intern at NPR in Washington, D.C. There, she contributed a number of posts to the health blog (Shots) and the food blog (The Salt). She continues to write regularly for the NPR blogs, National Geographic News and other media outlets as a freelancer, currently based in Southern California.

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This entry was posted on January 15, 2013 by in Health and tagged , , , .
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