Plumbing the Depths of Grief

american somme cemetary Bony

american somme cemetary Bony (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The death of a loved one is an impossibly agonizing, soul-crushing experience that never completely heals and only lessened by time. When my brother died in a car accident at the age of 25, I thought my tears would never stop.  From the moment I first heard the news, until the moment we lowered his body into the ground, I cried with a ferocity and singleness of purpose I didn’t know I possessed.  All the awful details of death, going to the hospital to get his personal possessions, cleaning out his apartment, picking out a coffin and the clothes he was to be buried in, were done with eyes blurred by tears and a voice hoarse from crying.  The procession of people bearing food and flowers seemed never ending, but I only hungered for alcohol and cigarettes.

After he was buried, the dreams started. Dreams of the two of us on a subterranean train system, the only illumination strobes of light that made him and the other passengers appear and disappear to the background sound of a speeding train racing over wooden tracks.  I was the only one who spoke in the dreams. He sat quietly, attentively, listening. I started out by speaking slowly, normally, and as the train raced along my words hastened to match its speed. I’d talk faster and faster, cognizant in my dream that the time to talk was soon coming to an end, and then he’d disappear.

I’d wake up crying, thinking I would pay any price for him to still be alive. Eventually my grief ebbed to where I could say his name without crying, and then to where I could look at his picture without my eyes growing teary, and now I survive without him. Still, 28 years later, I mist up whenever I hear the lines from “White Christmas” that promise “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams”  because my dreams are the only place I can hope to see him.

Was I depressed during the grieving period? Yes. Did my doctor put me on antidepressants to numb the pain of my loss? No, and I’m glad he didn’t. My brother’s death was something I had to work through and plumbing the depths of my grief informed how I have dealt with the deaths of all of the loved ones that have followed him.

The American Psychiatric Manual has traditionally warned against diagnosing depression during bereavement, but now psychiatrists with ties to drug companies have helped to remove that warning and the makers of antidepressants stand to benefit from the change. If grief equals depression, grief is a treatable condition. A treatable condition is billable and amenable to interventions, in this case, prescription medications. Instead of providing a shoulder to cry on, doctors will provide a prescription pad to write on. And where does that leave the patient? Once again a normal part of life is medicalized, this time because drug companies want to take advantage of a market that increases every day, with every death.

Recently I heard the story of a mother who stood up at her son’s funeral and apologized because she had nothing to say to eulogize her son. She stood dry-eyed, unable to cry, and said she was on too many medications to feel anything but numb.  I wonder about her now, many  months after her son’s death, and whether she’s allowed herself to experience the pain of grief in all of its snot-drenching messiness. I hope so. I can’t imagine any crueler prison than not being able to let go of that pain.

In mourning death, we open our heart and let it bleed. Even though a scab may form, for a long time every memory rips it open and starts the bleeding again. It’s an unpleasant, unpredictable process, but as Henry Rollins says, “Scar tissue is stronger than regular tissue. Realize the strength; move on.”

The grieving process helps us to do that far more than any chemical ever will.

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