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