“Well, now, you’ve just to get over it, don’t you?” she said kindly, and placed a card expressing her condolences on my desk. It was a question that required no response.
Get over it… over it… over it.
The words resounded silently as I absorbed them, and transformed them into a heavy mantra. No, that isn’t quite accurate. The words were a challenge.
When would I get over it?
Perhaps they should have been asking, could I get over it?
Or even more significantly, should I get over it?
It was my first day back at work after learning that my younger sister died in an accident while riding her bike to work in New York City. I’d left the office abruptly on a Thursday afternoon, and hadn’t returned for several days. Her memorial service was held on a Monday. I may have gone back to work a few days later, or the following week. I honestly can’t remember.
A few days ago the American Psychiatric Association (APA) recently drafted new language to define clinical depression. It reads that “feelings of deep sadness, loss, sleeplessness, crying, inability to concentrate, tiredness and no appetite, should they continue for more than two weeks after the death of a loved one, could be diagnosed as depression, rather than normal grief reaction”.
We get fourteen days and then a diagnosis of mental illness if we’re not “over” it?
This is the kind of pretentious, professional madness that really ticks me off. Fortunately, I’m not alone. The Lancet, a leading medical journal, echoes my personal response to the APA decision to classify grief as an illness in a succinct editorial that you can read here. The wise words of Arthur Kleinman, a widower and writer for the Lancet, buried themselves into my soul as I read them.
“My grief, like that of millions of others, signaled the loss of something truly vital in my life. This pain was part of the remembering and maybe also the remaking. It punctuated the end of a time and a form of living, and marked the transition to a new time and a different way of living.”
Losing my sister ultimately pushed me into a world that was unfamiliar and unwelcome. Perhaps I have spent more time than is typical caught within the complexity that death brings… its questions and its tough non-answers. And I confess that four years after her death, I reluctantly accepted a PTSD-like diagnosis that was certainly due to the experience in which I suffered her loss in those early days, nights, weeks and months.
But is the answer to take two weeks and then bring on the meds?
It is according to the American Psychiatric Association.
I say no way. We cannot continue to treat heartbreak as a condition that we can “fix” with a handful of pills or a shot.
Grief is not an illness of the body nor of the mind. It is, rather, a condition of the body, mind and spirit.
What’s the difference?
Grief is experienced uniquely by millions of men, women and children in infinitely distinct ways. Grief is unpredictable. Grief comes and goes according to its own needs. Grief hovers, like that special guest at the dinner table who lingers long after the last drink has been poured. Sitting at the bar at closing time, it’s the last guest to leave.
Grief is humbling in its ability to pursue you long after your loved one has died. Grief is powerful in its aptitude to resurrect itself just when you think it has moved on. Grief is expected, if not invited, into your home.
Grief doesn’t ask for permission to move into your heart. Grief knows that which only the bereaved truly understand.
Grief is a gentle friend when the world continues to tilt on its ever moving axis, and you’re feeling left behind.
Grief is a knife through the heart.
Grief is a journey. Grief never, ever truly says good bye.
And so when I’m encouraged to “get over it”, I say no. Not just yet. Perhaps not ever.
Grief need not be the most important presence in the room, nor in my heart. Grief needs to eventually learn its place in my life.
It’s my life, and it does not belong to Grief. I don’t take orders from the ever sad, ever sorrowful, ever angry presence, gentle or not.
I am well.
Bereaved people are well.
I suggest we allow those of us who have lost loved ones to linger a bit longer than two weeks in our grief. Let’s embrace grief as part of our journeys – unexpected, maybe. Unwelcome, certainly. But most definitely a part of the process to heal.
Linking up tonight with Things I Can’t Say!