Should grief be diagnosed as a mental illness and be treated with medication, or is it a natural part of human life that should not be treated? This debate continues within the psychiatric world. It was a discussion first promulgated by Dr. George L. Engel in his ground breaking thesis “Is Grief a Disease?”
The unanswered question in this debate perhaps lies in how we, as a society view grief. A very interesting article was published on this subject some years ago in the US National Library of Medicine. Titled,“Oppression of the bereaved: a critical analysis of grief in Western Society.” It states,
Bereaved individuals often experience profound social pressure to conform to societal norms that constrict the experience of grief rather than support it…………
This is an interesting point. Often, a person going through the loss of a loved one finds, that after the initial sympathy wave and support period they are expected to “get on with life”. No one talks any more about the individual who has died; there is discomfort when the one experiencing loss deals with it in unexpected ways that make others feel uncomfortable. Even within religious communities there are sometimes expectations as to how to behave at these times. After all, it was not that long ago that widows were expected to dress in black for at least a year. It was called “widows weeds”……….
This constriction and restriction to finding healing and wholeness after a deep loss can tempt many a bereaved individual to seek medication to cope, not only with the loss, but also with societal expectations around it. Many people feel that medication will help to dull the pain, so that they can put on their “happy face”, and so “get on with their lives.” Some feel that the intense pain is too much to bear.
But are they just coping? Do drugs in this case really help, or do they hinder the healing process?
Last year a beloved Uncle passed away in England, without any warning. We were very close, talking on Skype every week. He was a huge part of our family life in so many ways. The moment that I walked into his now empty home, the grief swallowed me up suddenly, like a tsunami catching me totally off guard. I was not expecting such intense feelings. Although during the day I was able to go about the business of wrapping up his affairs efficiently, the nights were wakeful, deeply sad and lonely. So, was I suffering a mental illness? The thought actually never crossed my mind. I understood that what I was feeling was the pain of loss and separation.
Many people turn to friends and family for support, but for me, I didn’t even feel that sociable. However, the inner resource of prayer was like a friend that held my hand, even in the deepest places of sadness. I felt that prayer was like a safe harbor I could go to in the stormy sea of emotions, and I could trust it. I often turned to a verse from Psalms in the Bible. It reads. Whither shall I flee from thy spirit…if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the utter most parts of the sea, lo thou are there.” I knew just how the Psalmist felt – I felt that I was awash in an unpredictable ocean, but feeling this strong presence of quiet love and centering on that held me safe, just as the Psalmist wrote, thousands of years ago.
One early morning, as I lay still in the quiet moments just before dawn, I heard one bird sing a beautiful clear song. As I listened, other birds joined in, until there was the most glorious morning concerto I have ever heard. As the music washed over me I felt a deep, warm comfort; a sense of being deeply loved. I realized that my Uncle was deeply loved too – by the same Love that was loving me, and with that realization came the understanding that we were not separated, but together in this embrace of Love, and I felt reassured and comforted. I never again felt that raw, deep sense of loss and pain.
Had I taken medications to dull the pain of what I was experiencing, I doubt that I would have even heard the bird song, much less felt the sense of reassuring love that came with it. For me, healing from a sense of loss comes not from medication, but from feeling a sense of sacred wholeness and connectedness to divine Love.
This post was published in the Times Colonist, on Spiritually Speaking on Oct 17 2012