Alzheimer's, Dementia & Mental Health
Grief From Loss of Partner May Cause Memory Problems
but Not About the Lost Loved One
Also works when the grieved imagine future events: no
problem if it involves lost partner
March 18, 2013 Most senior citizens are not
surprised when a friend suffering from complicated grief after the death
of their partner has difficulty recalling specific events from the past
or imagining specific events in the future. A new study finds, however,
those faults are not present when these events involve the partner they
The death of a loved one is among the most painful
and disruptive experiences a person can face. For most, the grief
subsides 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.
Research suggests that that people who suffer from
complicated grief, similar to those who suffer from post-traumatic
stress disorder or major depression, have difficulty recalling many of
the specific memories of their past.
But theres an exception: They often retain their
ability to recall specific memories for events that include the lost
loved one, according to this study published in
Psychological Science, a journal of the
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
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,
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
These findings point to a cognitive mechanism
underlying the distressed yearning that is characteristic of complicated
The research also 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.