Lifewatch: Complicated Grief

CALIFORNIA -- A new study out of UCLA seeks to shed light on why some of us grieve longer than others after losing a loved one.

"My mother died 2 years ago of breast cancer. I remember I wasn't able to listen to music for about a year or longer. Everything reminded me of her and it was just too painful," said Janice Van Wagner.

Jancie suffers from what psychiatrists call "complicated" grief.  The kind of utter sadness and yearning that lasts almost every day for six months or more after a loved one is gone.

It happens to a good number of us, but according to a new brain imaging study out of UCLA, the possible reason why even surprised scientists.

"I was surprised to find that people who are yearning are activating the same pathways as people who are craving other types of substances," said Dr. Mary-Frances O'Conner.

A brain scan was taken in 23 women who had lost a mother or sister to breast cancer.  In half of them, the area of the brain associated with reward lit up when they saw photos of their loved ones, which indicates their memories had addictive properties.

"And it made us realize that on a subconscious level, their brains were still reacting in a pleasurable way to seeing that person," said Dr. O'Conner.

It's estimated that as many as 20% of us suffer from this "complicated" grief. The study's authors hope their finding will help shed light on a treatment for it.

The California Breast Cancer research program funded this study.  The same UCLA researchers are now embarking on a study about the kind of grief older adults suffer from when they lose a long time spouse.

Reported by Kristy Ondo