Grief and Medication

I generally stay away from talking about medication when it comes to grief because it is a sensitive — and personal — topic. I have a firm belief that grief is not a medical condition that needs to or can be treated by drugs, and though this belief extends only to myself and not to others, I worry that my talking about the subject will make people think I am being judgmental of those who need medical help, and I am not. We all deal with grief the best we can, however we can.

Still, medication is a topic that needs to be addressed because many people don’t realize there is an alternative. Not an alternative to the pain, of course, because that comes with the territory of grief, but an alternative to drugs.

Learning the truth about grief — that we are not crazy; that no matter what we are feeling, it’s natural; that others have felt what we have felt; that grief, no matter how painful, is a process that will help us become a person who can survive the loss — goes a long way to weaning ourselves from a dependency on drugs.

Alice, an older woman I met in an online grief forum, took anti-depressants after the death of her husband because she thought her emotions, the physical reactions, the endless tears were abnormal, and no one told her otherwise. What she really wanted and needed was the reassurance that her grief was a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. We expect to be able to slide comfortably into old age with that one person we love more than anything, and when that person dies, excruciating pain and angst are normal reactions.

There’s no way we can learn about the normality of such grief except from people like me who are willing to talk about their experiences because the medical establishment has decided that anything but a mild grief is an abnormal condition, and the things we see in movies (and don’t see) seem to agree with that opinion. How many movies have you seen where a woman (always a woman!) is told about the death of her husband, and when she starts crying and screaming, a doctor is there to jam a hypodermic into her arm? A lot. On the other hand, the complex and painful experience of grief for a spouse is not something we see on television shows, in movies, or read about in novels. Fictional folks (when they are not being drugged into oblivion) shed a fictional tear or two, perhaps go on a fictional spree of vengeance, then continue with their fictional lives unchanged.

It seems as if this current reliance on drugs to “treat” grief is more about hiding than helping. In today’s world, grief needs to be hidden almost from the beginning so that it doesn’t offend other people’s sensibilities, so that it doesn’t bring the specter of negativity into other people’s lives. Drugs also hide your grief from yourself so you don’t have to face the raw reality of death. Drugs are good for that. They can hide your grief to a certain extent, but that’s all they can do. They cannot bring the deceased loved one back.

Some people do need medical help, of course, and they should get it. As Leesa Healy (RN, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator) wrote: “There are absolutely times when a therapist is required to nudge a person from being stuck, but the fact of the matter is that psychiatry since 2000 has become completely dependent upon what I call the drug/work model . . . i.e. create a diagnosis . . . create a drug . . . back to work for you. At least this is true in Australia and yes I’m qualified to say so (in case anyone wonders). Western psychiatry is leading us down a road of becoming the living dead and the risk is many folk are walking this journey willingly, unaware of the consequences so focused are they on the short-term fix. And who can blame them. It is not only our habit to avoid pain, but also, the very structure of any capitalist society is allowing us less and less time to be ‘truly human’.”

There were times I wanted the pain of being “truly human” gone since my grief was almost more than I could handle, but I wanted even more to feel sorrow that Jeff was dead. Well, actually what I wanted was him here, alive and healthy, but since I couldn’t have what I really wanted, I owed him my sorrow. I owed “us” my sorrow. He deserved to have someone grieve for him, to have someone feel the imbalance of the world without him in it. For me to have gone seamlessly from a shared life to a solitary life without a backward glance or a tinge of pain would have dishonored him. To not feel at all would have been way more of a medical problem than feeling too much.

Although medicine and psychology are the branches of science that have taken charge of grief and how it is described and understood, an anthropological approach — listening and observing — better captures the truth of the situation. Anthropology is the science that deals with the origins, biological characteristics, and social customs and beliefs of humankind, all of which pertain to grief. Few people listen to us bereaved; instead, they try to tell us how we feel. That is why support groups work. If the medical and scientific establishment won’t listen to us, we need to listen to each other, to observe how others are dealing with their grief, to talk about our own situation.

That’s the approach I took — listening, talking, writing, explaining what I learned about grief. I also walked. I was too restless to do much else (except cry) and as it turns out, walking is a good way to deal with grief, not just because of the sedative nature of walking but because it quiets the brain and lets the brain do the work of grief. When we’ve lost a person intrinsic to our lives, our brain goes into overdrive. So much of daily life is habit, and when that habit is suddenly disrupted, the brain tries desperately to identify new patterns and to find alternatives. Adding to the overdrive (and to the brain fog that is normal the first year of grief) is our need, however futile, to try to think our way out of grief. Walking helps put the brain back in its default mode — stream of consciousness. By simply feeling and not trying to make sense of grief, by letting thoughts drift through without trying to catch hold of any one of them, we can rest our brain and perhaps even open ourselves to new insights.

Not everyone is able to deal with grief in its raw state; in fact, many people are so traumatized they need extra help. As always, my mission, to the extent I have a mission, is to help people understand the nature of grief so they can deal with that cold, lonely road as best as they can — with or without medication.


Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

11 Responses to “Grief and Medication”

  1. Faye Taylor-Mason Says:

    Awesomely written and explained. Lost my spouse 5.5 years ago and only during this last year did I start to feel normal. Then Covid kicked in and all we heard about was loss. And. I could do was pray, for myself, for all those who lost someone. I hated thinking/knowing someone would feel what I felt. Thank you and God bless you, Ms. Bertram for keeping it “real” and all of us informed and understood in our grief.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Thank you for your kind words. This is a subject I know well, having been there myself and having talked to hundreds of others who have navigated that same labyrinth. It’s a hard thing to have to deal with, even in the sixth year. Even in the twelfth year.

  2. Estragon Says:

    I don’t think mental health systems have quite figured out how to deal with grief. As there’s generally no blood or other physical/biological tests to diagnose (and by extension treat) disorders, the DSM criteria looks at whether there’s a frequent and continuing impairment of daily functioning and general well-being. If not, that’s normal. We all have our down days, anxieties, and/or personalities. If so, it gets a label as a disorder.

    It seems to me that even “normal” grief (whatever that is) can be profoundly disruptive and sometimes disabling.

    I read somewhere that the definition for “complicated grief” was being proposed as these symptoms extending beyond six months, but somehow that doesn’t seem right. I suspect it keeps coming back, maybe forever.

    A happy pill might ease the effect some, but it won’t make it go away. They’re still just as gone, and we have to come to terms with that as best we can.

    • Estragon Says:

      BTW, really enjoyed the ending of “Bob”

    • Joe Says:

      Agree. The establishment pathologizes everything under the sun. And Leesa Healy nails it: “…the very structure of any capitalist society is allowing us less and less time to be ‘truly human’.” Good luck getting half an hour to eat and go to the bathroom at work (they start it in school, cram your lunch and bathroom breaks at regulated times), let alone have more than 3 days to grieve the loss of the love of your life.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I have a real issue with their definition of “complicated grief.” As you said, they think any grief lasting more than six months is a disorder, but it takes at least a year to get over the shock and the fog that accompany the first year of grief.

      They also say that “Complicated grief is the failure to return to preloss levels of performance or states of emotional wellbeing.” None of us return to preloss levels after the death of a spouse or life mate. The process of grief is about creating a new state of emotional wellbeing despite our loss, and sometimes that takes years.

      And then there is the whole yearning thing. They say that if you have strong feelings of yearning for your deceased mate, that is a sign of the disorder, but that is patently false. A big part of grief is yearning, more than anger or any of the other so-called stages of grief.

      You’re certainly right that current mental health systems haven’t a clue about grief, probably because many of the people who are deciding what is and is not normal haven’t experienced the chaos we are plunged into after the death of mate.

  3. Uthayanan Says:

    Thanks Pat beautifully, wonderfully written. I never took any medication and never will. I am happy that my doctor helped me to respect my grief. Tomorrow it will be three years and six months after my soulmate departure.
    The paragraph “There were times” and “That’s the approach I took” admirable.
    The the last 3 1/2 years I have searched articles about grief to understand in French and English the only blog helped me to understand is yours. And your dedication and your mission continue after 11 years better and better.
    And helped me to understand that I am not a victim of grief and it is not a medical condition and helped me cope with grief and to my approach in long term convert her love and her souvenirs as a inner force and strength to live better to honor and pay homage to her.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I’m glad I’ve been able to shed some light on the painful subject of grief. It helps me, too. And thank you for the topic for today’s blog. It’s an important one.

      Wishing you peace tomorrow, and every day.

  4. Sara Says:

    Thank you for writing and sharing this. 💕

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