grief: should we treat it like an illness?

I could hear them through the sky-blue concertina curtain that separated us.

“What happened?”

“I was hoovering and I tripped over the cord and landed awkwardly.”

“The x-ray shows you have fractured your femur. We need to keep you in overnight and you’ll have surgery tomorrow.”

In that moment, I envied her. A diagnosis and a solution. She was in the right place, the right hands.

What was I doing here? My symptoms were abating. I had been left here for two hours because I was not a problem for them to solve. So I lay there, listening and wishing I did have something physical wrong with me. In some ways, it would be easier. I know that is naive and incorrect in many people’s reality, but I felt desperate to know this would end just as she knew her broken bone would heal.

I wished I had tripped on a cord instead of had two major bereavements and acquired severe anxiety. Life had dealt us both unexpected blows. Her pain was physical and would be dealt with. Mine was mental but also physical and I was sent home.

I had an illness, but was told I was “fine”. I was sent home whilst I felt desperate for help and had no idea what had happened in my mind, and why.

“The mourner is in fact ill, but because this state of mind is common and seems so natural to us, we do not call mourning an illness.” Melanie Klein, 1940

If I had treated myself as an ill person from the start of my grief after losing my Dad, perhaps things would have been different.

Mourning as an illness – what would that mean?

Grief supposedly lasts an average  of one to two years. The mental and emotional wound takes that long to heal and then you hit the fifth stage (acceptance) in a more concrete way. You have accepted the loss and feel relatively “normal”. You still miss the person and feel pangs of sadness, especially around the anniversary, but you’ve come through it and out the other side – so to speak. But it can take longer for some.

If I had seen myself as being ‘unwell’ from the beginning for this lengthy period of time, I might have done this:

  • had counselling whether I felt like I needed it or not
  • reflected on what ‘soothed’ me and did more of it than I would normally do
  • given myself plenty of space and time to reflect and be grateful rather than introduce more goals and pressures
  • introduced more physical self-care

Another significant question is: how might you view and treat your mourning friend differently if you saw them as unwell?

It’s interesting to ponder and since Melanie Klein wrote those words 67 years ago I’m not sure we’ve come all that far in not hurrying people through this process and having too high expectations. Not only of them but of ourselves.

In Bereavement: studies of grief in adult life, C.M. Parkes & H. G. Prigerson refer to two aspects of grief: loss and deprivation. The loss is what produces grief and is about the person whom we’ve lost and all their personhood. The deprivation refers to the various things we no longer have as a result, such as; money, security, affection, handyman/woman, confidante, etc. Deprivation can lead to loneliness. A psychological affliction that can have far-reaching effects if left alone.

Grief is monumental. A huge mountain to climb. That’s not even covering the element of trauma that may be involved.

It is not weakness. Or failure.

I don’t expect to suffer with anxiety in the long-term and I accept it will take time. I have taken steps to help myself heal and now I wait patiently for these things to work. To change my thought patterns takes time and effort. To not be afraid of my feelings takes accepting that something went wrong and I need to commit myself to getting better and to keep working at it every day of my life.

As it is with grief; hope is key. To hold a vision of how I want to be and faith that I can get there.

hope never disappoints

But also, self-compassion:

Higher levels of reported self-compassion have been found to be correlated with lower levels of depression and anxiety (Neff, 2003; Neff, Hseih, & Dejitthirat, 2005; Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007).

What does it mean? Well, what do we all need from others during our weakest times?

Someone who will accept what we feel without judgment and someone who will help us feel safe and content.

I’m still figuring out what that looks like when I offer it to myself, though I know I can only do that successfully when compassion comes from outside of myself first and foremost.

“The power of effective habits is not in the seclusion, or the silence, or the journal, but in whom you find in the habit. If you only find yourself, then your weaknesses, failures, and stresses can only be amplified and perpetuated. But if you find more of God, you have found resources far beyond yourself to address your deepest, most desperate needs.” John Piper

What does self-compassion look like to you?

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