Grief is defined as deep sorrow, especially sorrow caused by someone’s death. The concept of deep sorrow is far from tangible. Our culture tends to crave hard evidence, concrete proof of such things. Without it, grief is merely subjective, a dangerous label when considering the implications on our lives following substantial loss.
In the field of psychology and counseling, there are different assessment tools for professionals to get a sense of how a person is grieving. The Center for Research on End of Life Care’s Grief Assessment tool measures the intensity of the reaction to the loss and assesses a person’s risk for developing prolonged grief disorder. Prigerson and Maciejewski’s Complicated Grief Assessment is a diagnostic tool to determine if the criteria for Complicated Grief are met.
While these assessments provide data that can be examined and measured, the experiences being assessed are still arguably subjective. They inquire if things are distressing and disruptive to our daily lives, or if there’s been difficulty accepting the loss. Questions also ask if someone feels life is meaningless following a loss, or if emotional numbness is present. These manifest themselves differently in everyone. While these represent significant aspects of grieving, the biggest barrier is not a lack of measurable qualities, but a dismissiveness of grief itself.
We do not handle death well in our culture. We have a tendency to avoid, to hush, to change the subject, to do anything but tend to the sadness we cannot change or the hole left in our hearts. A good mental health professional spends much of their time normalizing grief experiences throughout the course of treatment. For something as universal as loss, it is surprising how far removed most people are from embracing it as a common experience. People seem to be lost, not knowing how to think, feel, or act, yet others share considerably strong opinions for how other people should think, feel, and act.
Grief is the natural response to loss, and with it can come sadness, frustration, longing, withdrawing, brain fog, lethargy, etc. How closely these resemble symptoms of mental health challenges, and how unfortunate they get lumped together. Grief manifests after experiencing a loss, something to which every single human will be able to relate. Meeting the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition is not universal.
The distinction? Grief is the normal reaction to an abnormal situation. Mental illness as defined by Merriam Webster is a broad range of medical conditions that are marked primarily by sufficient disorganization of personality, mind, or emotions, to impair normal psychological functioning, and cause marked distress or disability and are typically associated with a disruption in normal thinking, feeling mood, behavior, interpersonal interactions, or daily functioning.
Grief can do all of those things. It is understandable how it can be lumped in with other disorders, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Deep grief often looks like somebody’s worst day in the midst of a struggle with depression. Naturally, it would then share the same stigma that taints the mental health world.
Stigma is a mark of disgrace or a loss of respect. Mental health professionals and consumers have been fighting the good fight to eliminate such negativity. We still have a long way to go, as many individuals reject the reality of mental illness, or simply view people as sick or damaged. People are accused of faking, overreacting, blowing things out of proportion, or symptoms being “all in their head”. Inability to manage one’s emotions is viewed as weak. Intense feelings which create disruption or disturbance to our functioning means a person is diseased, or less than. Grief goes along for the ride, dismissed, rejected, downplayed, minimized.
Posing the question, what if we viewed grief as we view physical ailments? Let us consider, having a broken leg. A person is sent for x-rays, provided painkillers, given accommodations at work for the length of their recovery, and possibly sent for physical therapy. Something in that person’s body does not feel right, and they wish the discomfort to go away. Doctors are trained to aid in reaching this goal, providing comfort and healing. The idea is for people to engage in their activities, responsibilities, and relationships as soon as possible, with or without accommodations, depending.
The physical therapist evaluates us, sees where we hurt and what we are doing when we experience pain. A plan is devised to work through the pain with the goal to regain as much functioning as we’ve had before, taking into account any accommodations that need to be made if our mobility has been affected. An important part of physical therapy is learning how to renegotiate our environment after functioning below our baseline, and striving toward our maximum potential.
We are so kind and accepting of broken legs, and dismissive of broken hearts.
It is not until we recognize the normalcy of grief that we can raise the bar on how we handle bereavement, both in ourselves and in our peers. The following resources may familiarize you with grief in general, and provide a bank of knowledge to refer back to if you or someone else in your life experiences a loss. The more we recognize that grief happens, the more we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to such an experience, we provide a safer environment to the next person to do the same.