Is Grief a Medical Disorder or a Part of Life?

California sunriseEvery once in a while I write a post that really strikes a chord with people, and such a post was The Half-Life of Grief. It’s garnered over 126 shares on Facebook alone, so apparently it’s an important message: grief is not simply emotional, but it’s physical, too. And if it’s physical, then no amount of sublimating our emotions will get rid of the grief. It’s in our very cells.

This is a message that the American Psychiatric Association doesn’t get. According to the updated Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to be 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 after the loss of a loved one 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.”

As I said in 2010 when I first posted the information about the APA getting rid of the bereavement exclusion: 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.

During the past couple of years, there has been a concerted effort by grief counselors, therapists, and other health professionals to rectify this gross misrepresentation of grief, but the American Psychiatric Association is sticking to their decision that grief is a medical disorder.

A medical disorder? For cripes sake, it doesn’t take a fistful of degrees to understand that for the majority of people who have lost someone important in their lives, grief is a completely sane and healthy reaction. So what if grief is hard? Someone we loved dearly is gone from our lives and will never return. What do they expect us to do, just blithely continue with our lives as if nothing important happened? As if the dead had never even existed? As if we’re happy about the situation? And even if we wanted to be joyful despite it all, there is the simple matter that our bodies also grieve, and we’d have physical reactions even if we were drugged into placidity.

I realize that in certain cases people do entertain thoughts of suicide, but those thoughts are part of the grief process. It’s only when people start stockpiling pills or buying guns or starving themselves on purpose that grief might become a medical concern.

Admittedly, some people do manage to continue after a major loss as if nothing happened, and to be honest, I thought I would be one of those people, but death and loss have a way of making themselves felt even in the strong and stoic.

It might seem from these grief posts that I dwell on grief, but I don’t. I dwell on life. And grief is part of life. I understand that. And so should the American Psychiatric Association.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

The Healing Power of Stories

I attend a bereavement group every week, which surprises me, considering that I’ve always been a do-it-yourself sort. I only started going to the meetings because I wanted to know how to survive the terrible agony of grief I experienced after the loss of my mate. I didn’t learn how — it’s something no one can teach another — but I learned that one could survive those first unbelievably painful weeks when I met people who had survived them. I keep going to the group because of those same people. We have something in common, a shared understanding, a survivor’s respect. And now, after five months, I am one of those who, just by being there, show the newly shell-shocked bereaved that one can learn to live with the devastation of a major loss.

Each meeting begins with a lesson, and today’s lesson was about the importance of stories and how they help us heal. The people who attended the meeting today all happened to be women who had lost their mates after decades of being together, and the counselor asked each of us to tell the story not of our mates’ deaths, but of how we met. We all knew the end of each of our love stories — over the months we have told the story of our grief many times. But this is the first time we talked about the beginning of our love stories, and in those stories we found hope, comfort, smiles, a reconnection to our past.

According to the handout we were given, the benefits of telling stories are:

  • Searching for wholeness among our fractured parts
  • Coming to know who we are in new and unexpected ways
  • We can explore our past and come to a more profound understanding of our future direction
  • We can seek forgiveness and be humbled by our own mortality
  • We can discover the route to healing lies not only in the physical realm, but also in the emotional and spiritual realms.

An unexpected result of today’s lesson was a new understanding of the importance of writing. For me, anyway.

These past months, I’ve spent a lot of time reading. I have always tried to lose myself — and find myself — in fictional worlds during periods of trauma, but this time it’s not working the way I hoped. I’m not finding healing in current books. The authors seem to be going for the shock effect of not-so-good versus unbelievably-outrageous-evil, for story people who have identifiable characteristics but no character, for fast-paced stories with little substance or truth. How does one find wholeness in such stories? How do we come to know each other or come to a more profound understanding of our future in trite mysteries and unrealistic thrillers?

Perhaps it’s not important. Maybe entertainment is all that counts when it comes to fiction, but I want something more. And I especially want something more when it comes to my own writing. I don’t know where grief is taking me — it is changing me in ways I cannot yet fathom — but I hope I will end up writing stories of truth, of understanding, of healing. I hope I will make people smile. I hope my words will matter.