Recently, the NY Times published an Op-Ed piece by Allen Francis entitled "Good Grief." Allen Francis is a past professor of Psychiatry at Duke University and led the task force that created the fourth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or, D.S.M.-IV. The D.S.M.-IV is the bible of mental disorders. Psychiatrists use the D.S.M.-IV as a guide for both diagnosing mental disorders and for prescribing appropriate medications.
In May of 2013 the new D.S.M.5 will be published. According to Dr. Francis, buried within the pages of the new manual is a redefinition of what is called, "major depressive disorder."
Here is a quote from Dr. Francis' Op-Ed piece:
Suppose your spouse or child died two weeks ago and now you feel sad, take less interest and pleasure in things, have little appetite or energy, don't sleep well and don't feel like going to work. In the proposal for the D.S.M. 5, your condition could be diagnosed as a major depressive disorder.
In other words, a person in grief has the potential to be diagnosed with a serious mental disorder. Further, this grieving person can potentially be given psycho-tropic drugs in order to combat what could be diagnosed as a mental condition.
During my tenure as a hospital chaplain, I had the honor to lead a Grief Recovery Group. For several years, I heard the stories of people who were grieving the loss of loved ones. In addition, I sat with those who experienced those first moments of what could only be described as one of the most difficult journeys any human being can take. I sat with a team of chaplains who not only companioned me through my own grieving process, but, shared their grief as well. During this time, I learned a few things about this painful, long and life-changing human experience.
First, I learned of grief's universality. Walk along the crowded sidewalks of any metropolitan city. Look into the faces of those whom you pass. It is entirely possible the majority of those whom you see are going through some form of grief. Change is a constant human condition. With all change, no matter how large or how small, comes the experience in some form or another of loss. And loss is experienced as grief.
Even those events whom one would think of as positive - a marriage, a new job, a new place to live, the birth of a child - all of these, carry with them some form of loss. To the new marriage partner, this loss may be perceived loss of freedom, or singleness. To the new job holder, the loss could be of contact with now former colleagues. To the new resident, a loss of the old neighborhood. To the new parents, a loss of free time.
These losses are real. The grief felt because of these losses very real.
No one is immune and no one escapes from these various levels of sadness, mourning and missing.
And this does not even begin to include those who have lost significant others, family members, relationships.
Secondly, I learned that intense grief is fraught with deep feelings, moments of incredible sadness, physical ramifications such as lack of sleep, appetite, energy, as well as, the soulful reorientation of a person's outlook on life.
Persons in grief often told of an inability to concentrate, to remember, to find joy, to celebrate, to be able to summon up the even the will to live, to hope, to love again.
This does not mean that those who mourn are sick. This simply means that their lives have been turned upside down, tossed about like fruit some kind of cosmic blender.
Thirdly, my experience with the grieving taught me that at it's depths, the journey of grief was a spiritual one. Spiritual in that for those in grief, the very foundations of their beliefs about life, about themselves, and about their relationship to that which they deemed Holy were challenged. For those in deep grief, it is as if all one believes to be timeless, unchanging and secure is suddenly tossed in the air like juggling balls leaving that person with the extremely unsettling task of deciding which ones to catch, if any are to be caught at all.
I learned that at it's very core, grief is a spiritual process.
In addition, I learned that grief is not a" stages"kind of experience. A person who is in grief cannot be described as a person in this stage or that stage. Grief is fluid, dynamic, changing. For every two steps forward, there are five or six steps backward. For instance, just when a person thinks they are over the sadness of their loss, something can occur that throws them back into it. They may hear a song, see a picture, hear a story, visit a relative, and the tears will flow once more. Feelings of anger will resurface. Feelings of guilt return. People in grief are not simply stepping through stages. People who mourn are in what I learned to call the "flow" of grief.
Lastly, I learned that there is no "cure" for grief. Not really. For those who has lost loved ones, the pain of that loss never goes away. Not completely. There is no "recovery" really. There is re-orientation. Re-investment. The end of the journey is a re-investment in life with new parameters, new insights, new ways of dealing with a pain that never completely goes away.
When my mother died, I grieved the loss of a woman who meant the world to me. Even now, I will see a picture of her and once again, feel the sharp pain of not being able to call her, talk with her, see her. I miss her laugh, her shining green eyes, her Irish temper, her passion for the lost and downtrodden, which in her case, usually meant abandoned pets.
These feelings well up even though she died some fifteen years ago.
This does not mean that I am stuck in my grief. It means that I loved her. It means that made a place for her in my heart and this place is still empty. It means that when she died I was broken-hearted, wounded. It means I still carry with me the scar of that wound.
This does not mean that I am sick, depressed, or suffer from a disorder. This simply means that I am human. This means, too, that I opened my heart in love to another human being and when that person died, I felt their loss. Deeply.
We live in a society that tends to embrace the quick fix. We live in a society that is enamored with it's ability to medicate. And, I would say, that we live in a society that is not tolerant of grief, or those who are locked in the throws of this universal human experience.
For there was something else I learned as I companioned the grieving.
One night, I asked some fifty or so people to share all the pieces of advice they had been given from friends, family, even doctors, strangers, anyone. The list filled a complete wall of white board. I could not write fast enough.
Then, once completed, I asked a simple question. I asked, out of all these now multitude of pieces of advice, what percentage of those could be considered helpful? The answer was both alarming and not surprising. The group agreed that about 10 percent of advice given was helpful. 10 percent!
Moments went by as the group of us simply sat in silence. They knew. Grief is not easily "fixed," nor, is there some magic pill that will make it go away.
Grief takes time, patience and most of all, togetherness. What the grieving need are not platitudes, nor a pill, but simply a listening ear from persons who are not afraid to lovingly ask how the person in grief is doing and who are willing to sit down long enough to hear the whole answer.
Or as Allen Francis stated it, people who are willing, "To let us experience the grief we need to feel without being called sick."