Bereavement related depression and consoling a new widow

I am really enjoying my geriatrics rotation.

Although my attending preceptor is primarily a geriatrician, and practices deep in the heart of retiree central in southeast Florida, he also sees some patients who are younger. I took a history on a patient who was younger than me today, in her early thirties.

She started off complaining about insomnia and headaches, and then said she had some sort of an “attack” earlier this week. She quickly added that her husband died suddenly three weeks ago, and her therapist recommended that she come to see her doctor. I immediately offered her my condolences.

My mind quickly flipped to a frequent practice board question as I gently asked her about other symptoms.

A 40 year old man presents to an outpatient clinic complaining of insomnia, poor appetite, and feeling helpless and lonely. He frequently thinks of dying to join his wife. He lost his wife of 18 years five weeks before.

Was she suffering from loss of appetite? Was she able to return to work? Had she thought about hurting herself? What did she mean by an “attack”?

Telling the difference between bereavement-related depression (BRD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) is a frequent sample board question that I have come across in various forms as I have been doing patchwork board review. Bereavement is an exemption from a MDD diagnosis for two months after the death of a loved one, while the duration of depressive symptoms only needs to be for two weeks otherwise. Board review questions often dance around this time period. This BRD exemption (and the duration of symptoms for MDD diagnosis in general) is also the subject of some controversy as experts are constructing the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th ed. (DSM-V), which is the guide to diagnosing mental illness.

I snapped out of my board review musings and continued to question and console the new widow. When I got up to leave the room, I strongly considered asking the patient if I could hug her. Since it was only my third day on the rotation and I was in the room with the physician’s assistant, I decided against it. I think if this would be my own patient in my own practice in the future, I would not hesitate to ask. When I left the room and told the other student about it, I teared up.

I guess my empathy toggle switch is still operating just fine.

“MomTFH” is a medical student who blogs at Mom’s Tinfoil Hat.

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