Friday, June 10, 2022

Is it Possible to Measure the Duration of Grief?

 What is "prolonged grief" and can it be diagnosed? Can grief ever be defined as a psychiatric  disorder? 

In a former congregation there has been an ongoing saga, perhaps a soap opera, about a widower who chose to remarry. His first wife was a remarkable person, warm, determined, courageous in the face of incurable illness. She was loved by her faith community and by her many friends in the broader community. When she died there were people who elevated her to sainthood, which was not surprising in a way, and therefore assumed that husband should honour her memory by being alone for the rest of his life. Well, that didn't happen and when he entered into another relationship I heard from afar that some felt his grief was insufficient and that his new partner didn't hold a candle to his late wife, and...sigh. 

What is an appropriated grieving period, we have to wonder. Through the decades I presided at more than 500 funerals and memorials and I always attempted to acknowledge that grief was real and powerful, and that our Christian faith and resurrection hope could make a difference in how we addressed our loss. It never once occurred to me that I should pronounce on how long that grief should take, either personally or collectively. I learned quickly that there is no "get on with it" to grief and that the grieving process varied greatly from person to person. I may have been the pastor but who was I to say how loss would be experienced.  

To come back to my original questions, as of March of this year the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders now includes prolonged grief.  The diagnosis would be for the small percentage of people who are incapacitated, pining and ruminating a year after a loss and unable to return to previous activities.What happens after this diagnosis? The therapy too many people can't access because it isn't readily available or is too costly? Or medication, which is so often the pharmaceutical response to psychological issues? 

It took no time at all for plenty of people with strong credentials to state that grief is not an illness and that the time it takes to recover is the time it takes. Do we expect that the parents whose children were brutally murdered in a Texas school will ever get over their loss, let alone in twelve months, and that they will ever return to previous activities? 

Certainly there are medical and psychiatric means to address grief and I encouraged parishioners to seek professional support along the way but our society has a tendency to categorize and quantify some of life's deepest mysteries, including loss. 

There have been some excellent articles in response, including an opinion piece  by Anakana Schofield in last weekend's Globe and Mail. In it she suggests: 

I propose the integration of the expression of grief in the workplace and daily life. Each day, we start by remembering the dead. This way significant anniversaries for the bereaved aren’t endured in silent isolation, while colleagues demand outstanding tasks, better sales and that e-mail they owe them.

We recognize that we are all made up of those we have lost and everything they taught us or the ways in which they ruined us. The way we were loved or equally not loved. Just as people announce their birthdays, wedding, sobriety, illness survival anniversaries, we invite people to share their loved ones verbally with us on the anniversaries of their deaths. The comfort of talk and remembrance need not only be reserved for the church pew and the psychiatrist’s office.

In the "church pew" where we name the death of a Savioiur as central to the great drama of our faith we can regularly acknowledge the losses we experience as part of our ritual life and do so with honesty and compassion. And in humility we will recognize that the grief of others is not ours to measure. 


roger said...

Sometimes it feels like the whole world is grieving. We are inundated with such horrific news, such as the daily mass shootings in the U.S., the appalling invasion of the Ukraine and the thousands killed on both sides, and the list goes on....and that's not even accounting for our own lives in which family members have died, become estranged, suffered from mental illness, etc. It's amazing we get ourselves out of bed each day.

The challenge is not letting grief incapacitate in the long term. No one expects those poor families in Texas to ever get over what happened to their children. And I don't believe there should be a timeline on "getting on with it".

I have met people who have used their personal tragedies to speak to schools and other venues, and undoubtedly it's a cathartic experience for them and a way for them to deal with their grief.

I've also met deeply spiritual people who accept that life is full of grief and sadness and that it will all be worth it when they move to the afterlife, where everything is perfect and loving. I truly hope they're right about the afterlife....but as you've stated before, David, nobody ever sends any postcards from that place.

On that note, I think I'll go back to bed until Sunday.

Judy said...

Having grieved a few major losses in my life, I can say that the process is always surprising ! It does not, indeed, have a time line, nor does it manifest the same way in each case. It certainly does help to get through it (you never get over it!) to talk to someone and to have understanding friends to share with you.

David Mundy said...

Thanks to both of you for thoughtful responses.