After other parents recommended the book “The year of magical thinking” by Joan Didion, I got it from the library and started reading it. Some of her insights are really fascinating to read. Today I came across this passage.
Joan is quoting from Emily Post’s 1922 book of etiquette, Chapter XXIV, Funerals:
“Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless. Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely. Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain nerves already at the threatening point, and none have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use or be received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from their dearest friends.”
A few pages later Joan writes “She [Emily Post] wrote in a world in which mourning was still recognized, allowed, not hidden from view. Philippe Aries, in a series of lectures he delivered at Johns Hopkins in 1973 and later published as Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, noted that beginning about 1930 there had been in most Western countries and particularly in the United Staes a revolution in accepted attitudes toward death. ‘Death’, he wrote, ‘so omnipresent in the past that it was familiar, would be effaced, would disappear. It would become shameful and forbidden.’ The English social anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer, in his 1965 Death, Grief, and Mourning, had described this rejection of public mourning as a result of the increasing pressure of a new ‘ethical duty to enjoy oneself,’ a novel ‘imperative to do nothing which might diminish the enjoyment of others.’ In both England and the United States, he observed, the contemporary trend was ‘to treat mourning as morbid self-indulgence, and to give social admiration to the bereaved who hide their grief so fully that no one would guess anything had happened.’ One way in which grief gets hidden is that death now occurs largely offstage”.
Her book was published in 2005. Since then humankind (or more correctly the American Psychiatric Association) have added a new level to this whole process of removing death and grief from normality. At the end of 2012 the fifth revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was released. The working group removed a bereavement exclusion which basically means a normal grief process is now getting stigmatized as a disorder. In the third edition that bereavement exclusion covered a period of one year, it was reduced in the fourth edition to two months. Even those sound highly questionable to me. It took months, if not years to even comprehend the full impact of losing our first son. I am not denying that the symptoms of grieving and depression sound very similar, but classifying grief as mental illness is ridiculous. It is the opposite of acknowledging that grief occurs naturally after loss and I personally would be very surprised if it did not. To me that is not an illness, it is normal.
You can read various articles about this debate:
- The New England Journal of Medicine
- The Lancet concludes “for those who are grieving, doctors would do better to offer time, compassion, remembrance, and empathy, than pills.”
When will we stop medicalizing everything, make the normal unnormal and throw pills in that probably cause more harm than we might know of yet? I happened to watch a recorded episode of David Suzuki’s Nature of Things yesterday. The episode was called “Lights Out“. In it they investigate how the invention of the light bulb might have negatively affected the health of humans ever since. There seem to be indications that once we started to deviate from a natural pattern that was in alignment with the rising and setting of the sun, the human body has suffered because our circadian rythyms do not work the same way any more in the body. Researchers have linked it to depression, diabetes, cancer and obesity. Instead of treating normal things with medication, we might want to do more of this research and consider how we outsmarted ourselves. Maybe there are valid reasons why a normal grief process turns more often into a real depression these days because our body and mind is not able any more to naturally help us to get through a perfectly normal grief period.