Should there be a statute of limitations on grief?
In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, Patrick O’Malley, a psychotherapist from Texas, says that grieving is different for everyone, but that there is no right or wrong way to do it. Who can set in stone the depth or duration of grief?
O’Malley recounts the case history of Mary, a patient of his, a successful professional woman who couldn’t “get over” the sudden death of her infant child, six months afterwards. She’s been to two other therapists, with no improvement.
Those two had put her through the paces of recognizing and riding out the various “stages” of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The idea was that grief would run its course in a decent interval of time, and then she’d be able to put it behind her. But Mary’s grief didn’t cooperate. Though she put on a good face to the public, she was still hopelessly adrift.
She was stuck in her depression, and she wanted the doc to treat it, so that she might move on to acceptance.
O’Malley took a different tack. Instead of zeroing in on the depression, he asked Mary to tell him the story of her baby’s death.
After some initial reluctance, she did so, in minute detail as it turned out, from start to finish of the horrible ordeal. Then she started to weep, uncontrollably – the first time that she’d let her feelings flow unchecked. She told O’Malley it was the first time she’d told the story at one sitting. O’Malley quotes the writer Isak Dinesen:
“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.”
Did Mary get “better?” Yes, insofar as she quit thinking of her grief as an encumbrance, and saw it as a part of a “narrative of love,” in O’Malley’s words. Whether or not she was depressed, she was sad, and her sadness was so deep there was no dispelling it. His task, as O’Malley saw it, had been to allow her to embrace her sorrow, not forget about it. She had made it part of her story.
O’Malley says that the “stages-of-grief” model is still the one favored by many psychiatrists and grief counselors. He says it can sometimes compound a patient’s problems, especially when it is reinforced by the public’s opinion (even if unspoken or subtle) that grief should be seemly and ought to be put aside after a reasonable length of time.
“The truth is that grief is as unique as a fingerprint, conforms to no timetable or societal expectation,” O’Malley says. Even so, each story of loss, based on his and his patients’ experiences, has three chapters: Attachment (intensity of grief = depth of love); the Death Event itself (the surreality can make you crazy, if you let it); and Recovery (what to do when the world stops grieving with you).
The third one can be a LONG chapter. But in O’Malley’s ideal scenario, the patient gets to write it herself.
Farewells: H. L. Mencken, one-of-a-kind author, critic, newspaperman and iconoclast, died on this day in 1956. Mencken wrote:
“When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothingness…No show, no matter how good, can conceivably last forever.”
Mencken suggested this epitaph for himself in the magazine The Smart Set:
“If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.”
It was, after his death, inscribed on a plaque and placed in the lobby of The Baltimore Sun.
For a year’s worth of deaths each day, get your copy of Farewells: An Almanac of Parting Thoughts.