Research: Losing someone changes how you look at your future

When you loose somebody you love it is normal to have grief, it’s only human. New research examines this grief and the influence it can have on people. For most people, the grief diminishes over time. But those who suffer from complicated grief continue to yearn for the lost loved one, experience waves of painful emotion, and feel hopeless about the future.

From the press release:

Research suggests that that people who suffer from complicated grief, similar to those who suffer from post-trauamatic stress disorder or major depression, have difficulty recalling many of the specific memories of their past.

But there’s an exception: They often retain their ability to recall specific memories for events that include the lost loved one.

Graduate student Donald Robinaugh and professor of psychology Richard McNally of Harvard University 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, the researchers 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).

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,” say 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.”

Abstract of the research:

Complicated grief (CG) is associated with impairment in the ability to retrieve specific autobiographical memories. However, previous research suggests that this impairment may not occur for memories related to the deceased. We recruited conjugally bereaved adults and assessed autobiographical memory specificity for events with and without the deceased. In addition, we examined the specificity of imagined future events both with the deceased and without. Individuals with CG were no less specific than were bereaved comparison subjects when generating events that included the deceased. However, they did exhibit difficulty recalling specific past events and imagining specific future events that did not include the deceased. Difficulty generating events without the deceased may underlie the sense of lost identity and hopelessness observed in CG. Relative ease of envisioning a counterfactual future with the deceased may provide the cognitive basis for yearning. Accordingly, memory and prospection may be important targets for CG treatments.

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