Mourning the Loss of a Loved One Is Not a Disease
My wife of 45 years died six months ago this week. I have been processing her loss ever since. But the American Psychiatric Association now says that I have only six more months to heal myself, and that if I blow the deadline, I should be clinically defined as mentally diseased.
It’s not in my nature to use this column for personal business. But the APA’s decision to add “prolonged grief” (defined as one year or more) to its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders strikes me as a ludicrous attempt to reboot natural bereavement as a disease. And once you’re diagnosed with this newly created disorder, I bet there will be meds to make it all better.
I can’t speak for other grieving souls, and, granted, I’m still a newbie. But I’ll hazard a guess that most people in similar straits fail to reorient their emotional framework within one year’s time. Heck, some people conclude their time on earth without ever finding a modicum of peace. We, the walking wounded, are grappling with life’s worst disorders, navigating at our disparate speeds. That doesn’t mean we’re “sick.”
Six months after my own heart was gutted, I seem to be an everyday functioning person. But there’s no way that I can clear the APA’s one-year hurdle. When Oct. 3, 2022 comes and goes, I’m quite sure I will meet the association’s new definition of diseased. I’ll still feel pained when I hear a song that my wife and I loved. I’ll still feel pained when I try to watch new seasons of a show that she never got to finish. I’ll still sit with a book and zone out about some shared moment 30 years past. I’ll still keep the “peasant dress” that she wore on our first New Year’s Eve. I’ll still hear echoes of her doctors talking in code (“it’s a tricky case” and “it’s a complicated case,” which meant she was doomed). At odd moments I’ll still hear her voice (“Oh, Rick?”) summoning me to her sickbed. At odd moments I’ll still feel lost in time and space.
But I won’t see any of that as illness.
I’m sure there are extreme cases of grief that do require medical treatment, but, as NYU psychiatry professor Benjamin Sadock points out, “In rare instances, prolonged grief progresses to depression, a well-recognized disorder that encompasses all of the symptoms of the ‘new’ diagnosis of prolonged grief, a disorder that is unnecessary, unwarranted, and one that may stigmatize those so diagnosed.”
Devyn Greenberg, a grad student who lost her dad to COVID writes: “It’s not just personal indignation that stirs me about the (APA’s) decision. I worry for others who have loved and lost – at some point, all of us. I worry that this framing will render us even lonelier in our pain, even more convinced that our nonlinear, unpredictable paths through loss are ‘wrong’…Many of the symptoms the psychiatric association uses to define ‘prolonged grief’ are shockingly common. ‘Intense emotional pain (e.g., anger, bitterness, sorrow)’? Let’s call that a Tuesday. ‘Identity disruption’? When you’ve walked through a portal through which you cannot return, of course your sense of self changes dramatically.”
And Martha Weinman Lear, who authored a book about loss, writes that the beneficiaries of the APA’s new diagnosis will be “pill makers.” She says: “What strikes me as abnormal is not grief beyond the APA’s one-year prescription, but the degree of chutzpah required, professional training notwithstanding, to presume to set timelines for the normal grief of others, which in fact is as various as the grievers themselves.”
The APA’s one-year deadline smacks of classic American impatience: “Get over it” and “Move on with your life.” Like the cowboy in Lonesome Dove who said, “Best thing to do with death is to ride off from it.” Um, it’s not that simple. At my six-month mark, I do feel myself “getting over it” – the worst of it anyway, but with many caveats. I do feel myself “moving on” – as best I can, but with many caveats: Is it possible to feel happy again? Is it wrong?
Bottom line: I like the Bob Dylan line, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” What you do is, you learn to live with the emotional pain. Then you cushion it with all the joy you can muster for the good things in your life – be they family, friends (old and new), work, travel, biking, hiking, whatever – because you realize that gratitude can be a powerful palliative. You accept melancholia and whenever possible you lighten it with mirth. You honor your loss and accept the fact that your old life, and all the ways your loved one enhanced it, is irrevocably over – and that it’s now incumbent to craft a new one.
Sorry, headshrinkers. I won’t need meds for that.
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