Patrick O’Malley’s sensitive column “Getting Grief Right” in yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review reinforced what I myself know from both personal and professional experience: grief knows no timetable. Mourning the loss of a loved one takes as long as it takes. It is not at all unusual for a bereaved person to fret that “it’s taking too long” or to worry that other people will think they’re crazy for still feeling consumed with unpredictable waves of sorrowful tears. Grieving people often accuse themselves of “wallowing” in their misery. And there are plenty of guidebooks and bereavement counselors out there who mean well — by applying Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s theory about the stages of death and dying to the experience of grieving, or by suggesting that the first year is the worst and that things get better after the first round of anniversaries. But often that sort of “designer grief” doesn’t really help. Just as often, it makes the person who’s mourning feel worse, misunderstood, or enraged. Nor does medicating a bereaved person with antidepressants make sense. Grieving is a normal and healthy process for which there is no shortcut or substitute.
I resonated most with O’Malley’s suggestion that the story of loss has three chapters, and they look different and roll out in time a different way for each person. “Chapter 1 has to do with attachment: the strength of the bond with the person who has been lost. Understanding the relationship between degree of attachment and intensity of grief brings great relief for most patients. I often tell them that the size of their grief corresponds to the depth of their love.” Chapter 2 has to do with the death event itself. The impact of a sudden death, a freak accident, or a young child will automatically have an entirely different magnitude from the death, however painful, of an elderly parent or someone who has been ill for a long time. Chapter 3, says O’Malley, “is the long road that begins after the last casserole dish is picked up — when the outside world stops grieving with you.” This is when a support group or therapy can be helpful in providing a space where you don’t have to explain or make excuses for the feelings of drift, disorientation, and sadness that go with the territory of grief.
Check out O’Malley’s column here and let me know what you think.