Grief is Not a Medical Disorder

According to the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders released by the American Psychiatric Association, grief is considered a medical disorder, and should be treated as major depression. There used to be a bereavement exclusion in the description of major depression, but they have taken that away, and now more than a few days of pain is considered a crisis. There can be “a few days of acute upset and then a much longer period of the longing, the tearfulness. But typically sleep, appetite, energy, concentration come back to normal more quickly than that.”

In whose world is grieving a medical condition that needs to be treated? Not my world. In my world, grief is one of the bookends of a relationship. Love. Grief. If grief is a medical condition, then watch out. One day love is going to be considered a treatable disease.

Perhaps emotional pain is not necessary. Perhaps people can survive quite nicely without going through the pain of grief — perhaps avoiding grief won’t cause the future problems people say it will — but the truth is, grief is a life experience, an incredibly deep and painful and raw experience that changes the way you think about yourself and the world. Grief helps you process the amputation of having a child or a mate torn from your life, let’s you experience the loss in a visceral way, makes it real. In past eras, grief was acceptable, in fact, was even encouraged. In today’s world, grief needs to be hidden so that it doesn’t offend people’s sensibilities, so that it doesn’t bring the spector of bad luck into people’s lives. Drugs can hide your grief, of course, but that’s all it can do.

I didn’t grieve excessively when my mother or my brother died, but when my mate died? I was devastated. (Still am, but at the moment I am going through a hiatus, a time of peace.) It wasn’t only the death of him. It was the death of our future, our dreams, our hopes, our lifestyle, our shared life, our private jokes. It was the death of my companion, my love, my friend, my confidante, my fellow traveler on life’s journey. No drug is going to make any of those deaths acceptable.

“He” died. “We” died. But “I” didn’t. Grief made me realize that. Surviving grief has taught me that I can survive anything. No drug could ever give me that.

I know a woman who mourned the loss of her mother for two years. Actually, she wasn’t mourning the loss of the mother so much as the loss of the emotional support and attachment the mother never gave her and now never would. She emerged from this period a strong, vital, wise woman. No drug could ever give her that.

In a strange way, grief is a gift. Easy? No. Painful? Yes. But . . . If you let yourself feel it, let it become a part of you, it will take you where you need to go. And no drug can ever give you that.

8 Responses to “Grief is Not a Medical Disorder”

  1. Carol J. Garvin Says:

    You’ve been going through quite a storm… a time of black turbulence with flashes of enlightenment. Storms pass after varying lengths of time and I think grief is similar, differing in intensity and duration for different people. The thing is, the terrain is changed by a storm. I don’t know too many people who would see the storm of grief as a gift, but I’m glad you’re sensing a forward momentum. That is indeed a positive direction.

  2. T. Says:

    It’s a sign of the times we live in – everything needs to be fast and easy, even pain. In a land where illnesses are invented just so pharmaceutical companies can sell pills – we are directed by corporate messaging to believe that suffering is unnecessary….but it is necessary, without it growth is not possible and without growth, we are a shallow lot indeed.

  3. Dr. Lawrence Kindo Says:

    Every emotional excess is termed a medical disorder, so is grief. But, the duration and emotional upheavel can range from something as simple as a headache or to something more complicated as a suicidal tendency. Finding an individualized diagnosis is important, and hence the need for a psychologist or psychiatrist.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I would think “emotional excess” is a relative term. If one grieves for months because one has lost a ring, that might be excessive. If one grieves for months because one has lost a child, a spouse, a lifelong friend, then that is not excessive.

  4. elizabuff72 Says:

    My sister, Annie, died on 5/4/10. I really appreciated what you wrote about “we died” because that’s what it is. Annie and I were very close – we did everything together, went through everything together, traveled everywhere together. And now she’s gone and I’m still here. So I can believe you when you say if I can survive this, I can survive anything (but I sure hope I don’t have to – *this* is enough).

    I also really dislike the DSM designation of grief as a disease. As if to say there is something wrong with mourning the loss of someone you lived with and loved for 54 years. I should be feeling this way and I do and I don’t expect it to end anytime soon.

    Thank you for your wise and comforting words.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      elizabuff, Every time I think I should stop posting about my grief, thinking that it makes me seem too pathetic, I read a story like yours, and I realize it doesn’t matter how non-grievers perceive me. It’s good to know that my words bring comfort at such a terrible time.

      You are right — you should be feeling pain. One cannot suffer the loss of a “we” without feeling ripped apart. It takes time to come to some sort of accommodation with the pain, though I doubt it ever goes away.

      I am so very sorry that Annie died. If you ever need anyone to talk to, feel free to stop by. I’d be honored to listen.


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