Does the Grief After a Child’s Traumatic Death Ever End? Dr. Weide, Grief Expert, Says No

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Nine years after the murder of their daughter and at the beginning of the suspect's trial on October 18, Chandra Levy’s parents continue to suffer the symptoms of complicated or traumatic grief. According to Dr. Ursula Weide, such suffering is a major yet unrecognized public health problem which affects millions each year. The current efforts on the part of mental health experts to make complicated grief an officially recognized diagnosis will compel society to develop a better understanding of the pain of the survivors and to pave the way for more helpful treatment.

Move on, Get over it, Get a life

Chandra Levy’s parents, their daughter murdered in 2001 in Washington, D.C., continue to experience the typical symptoms of complicated grief, as the Washington Post reported on October 18. The case received national attention because Levy, a federal intern, had an affair with Congressman Condit from California at the time. Since Levy’s body was found one year after her disappearance, many questions will remain unanswered. Now that the trial of the suspect is beginning, the parents still wonder what they could have done to prevent the violent death of their child in Washington, D.C., thousands of miles away from their own home.

Dr. Ursula Weide, a Licensed Psychologist and Fellow of Thanatology with offices in Maryland and Virginia, who developed a novel approach to complicated grief years after the traumatic death of her young husband, says that it is natural for the “what ifs”, anger, guilt, tension between the parents, and the agony of the questions without answers – why did it happen to our daughter? – to continue for extended periods of time. Complicated grief after a traumatic – such as an untimely or violent - death of a child, spouse, partner, sibling or parent, fundamentally changes a person’s life and takes many years to integrate into a different way of living. As reported in numerous research papers, 10% to15% of all the bereaved – close to 2 million new traumatized grievers each year - experience complicated grief, different from adaptive grief after, for example, the death of an aging parent or a friend.

Adaptive grief, which initially can involve symptoms similar to complicated grief, subsides within a few weeks or months, says Weide. Complicated grief, such as the Levy family’s natural reaction to their child’s death, continues. Society’s lack of understanding of the difference and of the lasting impact of a traumatic death make it even harder for the survivors to eventually learn to live better with what happened, the best outcome possible.

Society wants survivors to “Move on, Get over it, Get a life” and has a time frame of about 3 to 5 months. Since the survivors are painfully aware that none of this often well-intended advice is helpful and that the trauma continues way beyond the first several months, they often feel that they are “going crazy” or that something is wrong with them, says Weide. A great sense of hopelessness and isolation from friends and family often follows. Studies have also shown that the risk of illness and death on the part of the survivors exceeds the national averages.

After their daughter’s disappearance and death, the Levys went public with their grief, educating society and drawing attention to a degree of suffering most would prefer to ignore. Fortunately, major efforts are currently under way to have the diagnosis of Complicated Grief added to the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, as summarized in two articles in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (July and August 2010). Two articles in the New York Times (click here and here) shed additional light on some of the more controversial aspects of these efforts.

According to Dr. Weide, once the new Complicated Grief diagnosis will be official, society and health care practitioners will have no choice but to acquire more accurate information about the plight of traumatized survivors and learn how to support them in a more appropriate fashion.

More on complicated grief and treatment can be found on

See an interview with Dr. Weide on NewsChannel 8, Washington D.C.

Contact information for Dr. Ursula Weide:


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