Managing grief and depression at the end of life

  • Widera E
  • Block S
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Psychological distress is common in terminally ill persons and can be a source of great suffering. Grief is an adaptive, universal, and highly personalized response to the multiple losses that occur at the end of life. This response may be intense early on after a loss manifesting itself physically, emotionally, cognitively, behaviorally, and spiritually; however, the impact of grief on daily life generally decreases with time. Although pharmacologic interventions are not warranted for uncomplicated grief, physicians are encouraged to support patients by acknowledging their grief and encouraging the open expression of emotions. It is important for the physician to distinguish uncomplicated grief reactions from more disabling psychiatric disorders such as major depression. The symptoms of grief may overlap with those of major depression or a terminal illness or its treatment; however, grief is a distinct entity. Feelings of pervasive hopelessness, helplessness, worthlessness, guilt, lack of pleasure, and suicidal ideation are present in patients with depression, but not in those experiencing grief. Psychotherapy and antidepressant medications reduce symptoms of distress and improve quality of life for patients with depression. Physicians may consider psychostimulants, such as methylphenidate, for patients who have depression with a life expectancy of only days to weeks. (Am Fam Physician. 2012;86(3):259-264. Copyright © 2012 American Academy of Family Physicians.)

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  • Eric W. Widera

  • Susan D. Block

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