Grief and Psychosis: How are They Related?

A loss can generate psychotic symptoms and a psychosis often triggers a grieving process. Find out how these two conditions are related.
Grief and Psychosis: How are They Related?
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Grief is a phenomenon all of us have to face at some point in our lives. Therefore, you probably know, more or less what it’s all about, and how to recognize it. On the other hand, psychosis is, more than likely, something that you see as rather distant and far removed. It’s undoubtedly not an illness that you’d expect to ever experience. Nevertheless, in reality, grief and psychosis are related on several levels.

We generally tend to group and differentiate psychological disorders into categories. This is both to improve understanding and to make interventions more specific. However, we shouldn’t forget that mental health is global and that there’s often comorbidity.

Therefore, some disorders can lead to the appearance of others. It’s important to recognize each of them so that the sufferer may regain their quality of life. This is necessary when grief and psychosis appear together.

Grief and psychosis

Before addressing the ways in which grief and psychosis are related, we’ll briefly describe each of these disorders. Because sometimes, the ideas we have about them tend to be based on myths and incorrect beliefs.

We can define grief as the emotional reaction that follows a loss perceived as being significant. Therefore, it’s a psychological process of the development of certain emotions to allow the person to adapt to their new situation. Grief is usually associated with, for example, the death of a loved one or a marital breakdown. However, in reality, it can appear after any type of loss. For instance, it could be the transition from one vital stage to another, a job opportunity that you miss, or even the loss of one of your own faculties.

Woman crying for grief

On the other hand, psychosis encompasses a series of mental disorders that are characterized by a loss of contact with reality. It influences thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Furthermore, it includes symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, confused thinking, and disorganized behavior.

It should be noted that psychosis isn’t a disease in itself, but that this set of symptoms can occur in different conditions. For example, it occurs in schizophrenia, in psychotic depression, or even in isolated psychotic outbreaks caused by substance use or by a powerful source of stress.

At first glance, grief and psychosis may appear to be completely different and separate entities. However, they’re not the same, but they can be closely related in various ways.

Psychosis in the framework of a grieving process

This is one of the most common experiences and one that many of the people who’ve experienced grief may have suffered. In fact, sometimes, in the process of the elaboration of loss, psychotic symptoms can appear in an isolated and temporary way.

For example, the sufferer might see, hear, or feel the presence of the deceased person. This happens very frequently. As a matter of fact, it occurs so often that it’s estimated that between 30 percent and 60 percent of widows have experienced these types of hallucinations after the death of a spouse.

On the other hand, grief can be a trigger for a first psychotic episode. In this case, it’s not temporary but tends to be the commencement of a disease that’s been lying dormant and has arisen due to the situation.

Grief in childhood and risk of adult psychosis

The British Medical Journal published an article regarding the relationship between these two disorders. This research found that experiencing the death of a family member during childhood markedly increases the risk of suffering from some type of psychosis in adulthood.

The probabilities were greater if the deceased person was part of the nuclear family. In addition, the younger the child was at the time of loss, the greater their chance was of suffering later psychosis.

Sad girl hugging a stuffed animal

Loss from illness

Psychosis can itself be a major cause of loss, both for the person who suffers from it and for those close to them. After the onset of the disease, the faculties and capacities of the individual are limited. Furthermore, in many cases, their quality of life is compromised, as well as the ways in which they relate to the world. These losses can be extremely significant, and their emotional impact is similarly intense.

In many cases, what we call partial mourning processes are set in motion. In these instances, the person is still physically present, even though on a psychological level they’re absent or different. However, the loss isn’t total or irreversible. In fact, it’s the chance of recovery that can make it difficult for the grief to be socially validated and accepted by those involved.

In addition, given the evolution of the disorder by episodes, the grief is recurrent and never ends. For this reason, it’s essential that the patient and those around them receive attention. The patient needs help to process and manage their emotions, from the moment of diagnosis and onwards. Otherwise, poorly managed grief will aggravate the situation.

A joint understanding

In short, there are different scenarios in which grief and psychosis can appear together. In all of them, recognizing the presence of both disorders is essential when planning any intervention. As we mentioned earlier, mental health is global. For this reason, all the adjustments and advances made in one sense will have an overall positive impact.

On the contrary, ignoring one of the factors to focus only on the most salient will only hinder and lengthen the patient’s recovery process. It must be remembered that every person’s situation is both unique and complex. Indeed, it’s imperative that this fact be taken into account when planning any intervention.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Castelnovo, A., Cavallotti, S., Gambini, O., & D’Agostino, A. (2015). Post-bereavement hallucinatory experiences: A critical overview of population and clinical studies. Journal of affective disorders186, 266-274.
  • Abel, K. M., Heuvelman, H. P., Jörgensen, L., Magnusson, C., Wicks, S., Susser, E., … & Dalman, C. (2014). Severe bereavement stress during the prenatal and childhood periods and risk of psychosis in later life: population based cohort study. Bmj348.
  • Valencia Agudo, F. (2014). Duelo y recuperación tras el inicio de la psicosis. Revista de la Asociación Española de Neuropsiquiatría34(121), 9-20.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.