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.

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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

Telling New Grievers the Truth About Grief

When new widows or widowers ask me about grief, such as how long it took me or when I stopped crying, I never know how much of the truth to tell them. For some people, the idea that grief will be the primary factor in their lives for three to five years before they find some sort of renewal, is a comfort because they know they won’t feel bad forever. For other people, three to five years is an astonishingly long time (which it is, when it comes to grief) and the thought adds to their despair. After the first year, it’s not such a dilemma for me — people have settled into their grief and knowing it will last years more, isn’t such a torment.

Because of my hesitation to tell the whole truth, I’ve gotten into the habit of telling new widows that grief “lasts a long time.” Oddly, when one is on the grief side of those years, it is an immensely long and dreary road, but on this side, the years of grief seem to have been over in an instant, probably because when things don’t seem to change much, when every day seems like every other day, all the emotional memories pile one on top the other like a deck of cards, rather than being laid out on the table so all of it can be seen at once. That sameness is also what gives grief, when one is going through it, a feeling of timelessness, as if we were always grieving and forever after, always would.

But no matter what things feel like, internal changes are being made, and those changes are generally manifested sometime in the fourth year when suddenly, it seems, life seems lighter, more hopeful. (Or it could be we are simply more used to their being gone, because the truth is, one can get used to almost anything, even death and loss and grief.)

Another example of not knowing what to tell is when a friend recently asked me if her going to visit a relative would help. I told her yes, because that is the truth. It’s good to get a respite from the emptiness, even if the effects of that respite don’t linger beyond the visit. What I didn’t tell her, because I didn’t want to ruin her vacation from herself, is the horror of walking into one’s home afterward to find the emptiness waiting to grab hold once more. But she learned the truth when she got home, and oh, my heart goes out to her. It really is a hard thing to deal with — that emptiness, that void, the knowing that for the rest of our lives, we have to live without that one person who gave us a deeper meaning, emotional support, love and companionship.

This same friend asked if the urge to flee would dissipate after she got back from her visit. I said, no. And when she asked how long it would take before that urge disappeared, I told her that everything takes years. It just won’t always be bad. That urge to flee turns into some sort of craving for adventure. And then, even that urge fades away with time.

I never thought “time” was an antidote for grief, since it’s what we do with that time that affects us more than time itself, but time does pass. The void shrinks but never goes away, so that even when we start to lose the memories of living a shared life because of the passing years, we always feel the absence. Do people need to know they will always feel the absence? At the beginning, it’s a burden, but as the years pass, that same void becomes a comfort, a way of keeping the memory even when the memory is gone.

Another lesser reason I hesitate is that the pattern of grief that so many of us deal with isn’t universal. In rare instances widows don’t fall into the black hole of grief but are able to go on, after a few months, as if nothing had happened.

But most of us have to wait until grief is finished with us.

And that takes longer than anyone wants to contemplate. Even ten, fifteen, twenty years later, something will happen (a daughter’s wedding, a grandchild’s birth, a debilitating illness) and grief, as fresh and as agonizing as the day our loved one died, will return.

What I try to emphasize more than anything is that no matter what people feel, no matter how long it takes, it’s normal. In the end, that’s more important that the specifics, because one thing that most new widows and widowers have in common is the feeling they are crazy when their bodies and minds go into overdrive as they try to process the death of the loved one and loss from their life. Death is the great unknowable, and having to confront that unknown as well as dealing with grief puts an unbelievable stress on the body.

People do need to know about that stress so they can do whatever is necessary to combat the stress. In my case, it was long rambling walks. In other cases, it’s sleeping for long hours or reading or keeping a grief journal or even talking to the deceased. It’s all about getting through the days, the weeks, the months, the years until a renewed interest in life asserts itself.

And it will. That I can tell you for sure.

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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

Proposal for a Book About Grief

The time has come to talk of many things . . . well, one thing anyway. Grief. I need to get going on the proposal for a grief book about the second year and beyond, so I would appreciate any suggestions of topics that you think should be included.

Some topics are obvious, such as The Five Major Challenges We Face During the Second Year of Grief and Meeting the Challenges of the Third Year of Grief.

Although I’ve never heard anyone but me and subsequently my blog readers talk about it, apparently there is another massive grief upsurge at the eighteen month mark, which probably should be mentioned.

Also, a few theories I came up with on my own, such as The Half-Life of Grief and Grief and Our Lizard Brain should be included because they are important insights into the grieving process and why it takes so long to come to an accommodation with grief.

During the course of the book, I need to assure people that they are not crazy, that it is normal to still be having upsurges of grief into the fourth year and well beyond when they have lost a fundamental part of their life, such as a spouse or a child. I think it’s important to somehow let the bereft know that it is not their family and friends’ responsibility to keep track of their grieving process. It is theirs alone.

Should I include a chapter geared toward those who haven’t experienced such a great loss to help them understand what their bereft friends and family are going through? Or would this be outside of the scope of this book? Even if the folks the chapter would be intended for didn’t read it, perhaps it would give the bereft one the confidence to speak up rather than wondering if in fact their family and friends are right about them?

Mostly, I want to tell people the truth about grief (my truth anyway), not try to comfort them or offer the typical platitudes such as “grief takes as long as it takes” (because really, when you think about it, that doesn’t say anything at all while giving people the idea that maybe they aren’t doing grief right if it is taking them so long). By the second year, the bereft know grieving is hard, and I think more than anything else, they want that hardship to be recognized and not disregarded as if it were something akin to a self-willed temper tantrum. (Well, more than anything else, what the bereft really want is their loved one back, but giving them this would be beyond the scope of my book.)

At the end of the book, there should be an explicit or implicit promise that yes, as hard as grief is, they can find a renewed interest in life.

Is there anything else you can think of? Anything you would like to see addressed? Any part of the grief process that seems to be overlooked by grief professionals? Anything that I’ve written over the years that should be emphasized?

Thank you for your help. And thank you, from the very depths of my being, for all the support you have given me (and my writing) over the years.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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+. Like Pat on Facebook.