Apparently, more than one million people per year, or 15% of the bereaved population, suffer from a disabling form of grief that persists long after the loss of a loved one.
How researchers can presume to distinguish a “normal” length of time for grieving from an abnormally long period of time, I’ll never know. But this prolonged form of grief, referred to as “complicated grief” (a rather unfortunate name), is under consideration for inclusion in a forthcoming DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association’s handbook for diagnosing mental disorders.
Those baby lost mamas and papas out there might be surprised to hear that the length of time considered to be “prolonged” is more than six months.
The main symptom of “complicated grief” is “a yearning for the loved one so intense that it strips a person of other desires.” According to a recent New York Times article, for sufferers “[l]ife has no meaning; joy is out of bounds.”
There is controversy over whether this acute form of grief is actually distinct from normal grief or bereavement, major depression, or post-traumatic stress, and whether it should be classified as its own disorder.
I don’t buy the cognitive treatment the researchers suggest, which includes recalling the death or loss in detail and listening to the recording repeatedly. I understand the purported purpose, which is twofold — first in the powerful act of telling the story, and second, to illustrate that, like the tape, a person’s grief can be picked up or put down at will.
In other words, grief should not be debilitating after six months. A person grieving a lost loved one should be able to resume usual activities without feeling at all despondent, place their sorrow away in a neat tidy “box” and take it down only when no one is looking. After six months, it’s time to put it away, say the professionals.
I believe in the power of storytelling (hey, I’m a blogger, right?), and I realize that many people have nowhere to tell their stories. I am also familiar with the concept of the “box,” which is intended to provide a safe place to “hold” one’s grief so it doesn’t need to be carried all the time — a “container” so to speak. (I’ve even read about therapy for cancer patients that includes placing fears and anxieties in a “box” and giving it to someone else for safe keeping during treatment, so the patient can focus on healing instead.)
I think that might work for some but not all people.
Grieving is a lifelong process. A better approach for me has been finding ways to integrate my grief into my life, trying to discover how grief is responsible for some kind of personal transformation.
Most importantly, I certainly don’t want to be told (by anyone) what is the proper way to grieve. The more I think about it, the more appalled I am that someone would attempt to classify my personal grief as “normal” or not.
I realize this approach is intended to help those who are truly debilitated by persistent grief. I appreciate that the point is to provide professionals with tools (diagnostic and therapeutic) to be able to help people process grief so they might attempt to resume a functional life. But is this the right approach?