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Maarten Eisma: what happens when people “get stuck” in grief?

What happens when people “get stuck” in grief?

The introduction of a new medical diagnostic manual, the eleventh version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), marks the first time that prolonged grief is recognized as an official disorder. For more than 100 years – since Freud’s classic work Mourning and Melancholia – it has been assumed that such grief reactions are sustained by a kind of phobic avoidance of painful aspects of loss, such as objects, situations or memories.

Maarten Eisma

Therefore, it can be considered paradoxical that the symptoms of prolonged grief mainly consist of attempts to approach the lost person. Bereaved persons with prolonged grief frequently ruminate on the causes of the loss, experience strong yearning for the presence of the deceased, and often display behaviour with which they appear to maintain a connection with the deceased (for example, looking at photos every day).

In my Veni project, funded by the NWO, I will try to solve this grief paradox using advanced lab techniques such as eye-tracking. My new hypothesis is that people with prolonged grief approach the deceased, but in doing so avoid the permanent separation from the deceased and related negative emotions.

The ultimate goal of my project is to understand which approach and avoidance processes characterize prolonged grief. Thereby, we aim to improve current treatments for prolonged grief. This is possible, for example, by acknowledging surviving relatives for the fact that they are very concerned about the deceased. In addition, we can provide these bereaved persons with targeted exercises to impress on them the finality of the loss of the deceased person.

M.C. (Maarten) Eisma, PhD
First name
Assistant Professor
Prolonged grief disorder; emotion regulation; repetitive thought (worry, rumination); approach and avoidance processes; internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy
Last modified:12 February 2020 10.13 a.m.
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