Whenever I tell someone about my sister, it’s as if I’ve injured them. Often, people avert their gaze, stutter “I’m sorry” and change the subject. No one likes hearing about dead kids. My sister died in September 2013, after an agonizing yearlong struggle with leukemia.
Her death left me with an illness of my own: grief.
Yes, an illness. Grief is often pathological, according to psychiatric standards. Following a traumatic loss, one need only exhibit the symptoms of depression for a couple of weeks to qualify for a diagnosis of “major depressive disorder” (per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
I’m quite familiar with these symptoms — they’ve all found me at one point or another. I had great difficulty “adjusting” to the loss of my sister. I slept 10, even 12 hours a night for a year following her death. I lost any significant sense of pleasure. I became obsessed with death. I was “teary.”
Following the initial year of grief, I developed severe obsessional anxiety (what people in the business might call “obsessive compulsive disorder”). For a couple of years, I spent most of every day wracked with feelings of self-hatred, fears of cancer and death, and crushing guilt. Outwardly, I managed well, though I was frequently characterized as a “negative person” for my morbid imagination and dour demeanor.
According to psychiatry, I was pathological. I don’t disagree that I was sick, though I would contest the nature of the illness. My “depression” following my sister’s death was normal. It was my unwillingness to accept that deep sadness that eventually drove me to mental illness.
I dislike the language of “mental illness,” but use it for the sake of custom and clarity. In my mind, I responded to the death of a child in the only reasonable way one can — insanity. I would have had to have been delusional to respond well to my sister’s death.
My experience has led me to realize that psychiatry’s conclusions about grief are as much a product of social convention as scientific inquiry. Though antidepressant drugs and psychotherapy exist in part to ease the suffering of the grieving, they are also intended to get people back to work and conforming to societal standards of mood. Psychiatry is for society as much as the individual. It works to enforce cultural norms — even when those norms are harmful.
In “A Grief Observed,” C.S. Lewis noted that the grieving are “an embarrassment to everyone they meet.” He proposed a “leper colony for the grieving” — a place where the grieving could live away from the pressures of polite society. His proposal still holds up today.
Grief is a radioactive emotion. It threatens to suck its spectators in, corrupting their souls as well. This is why people look away. The fire of grief is all-consuming — it is natural to want to move away from it.
I no longer fault people who cringe when I tell them about my sister. Sometimes, I find myself responding the same way to the grief of others. Discomfort is inevitable. The problem comes when we try to extinguish the fire of grief, when we deny others their pain.
Of course, modern medicine is not trying to pathologize ordinary grief. The psychiatric community is aware of the dangers of medicating people out of their sadness. A prudent clinician will “watch and wait” to see if someone’s symptoms truly rise to the level of a mental illness. A good doctor will encourage the patient to sit with their grief, only turning to medication when someone’s functioning is severely impaired (by protracted suicidal ideas, catatonia, etc.).
Culture is not so prudent. We live in a wellness-obsessed society, where we’re told that psychic suffering should be relieved just as broken bones should be set. We privilege positive thinking over negative realism. We are expected to be chipper, industrious, extroverted, calm. When we can’t do that on our own, Prozac and others are there to help.
Negative thinking is underrated. In my grief over my sister, my biggest mistake was thinking negatively too little. I jammed myself back into the roles of socialite and productive student before I was ready. I spared others my darker feelings. Because I did not want to be relegated to that leper colony of the grieving, I swallowed my pain. I swallowed it so well that I forgot about it.
My obsessional anxiety emerged not long after I thought I was done grieving. At the time, I thought it was an unfortunate coincidence. Now, I see it for what it was: a grief transformed.
Within weeks of seeing a therapist who encouraged me to accept my pain, my symptoms let up. I re-engaged with the horror of watching a little girl die of cancer. A world where that happens is not a world where “positive thinking” is the only sane option.
Death is undignified, and so is grief. Whether one grieves stoically or with sobbing, wailing and the tearing of garments, the pain of loss can never be polite.
I wish someone had told me after my sister died that I didn’t need to be OK. That I didn’t need to protect anyone. That as long as I pulled my pants on each morning and passed my classes, it was OK that I felt dead inside.
To the grieving: I want you to know that “positive thinking,” medication and cognitive behavioral therapy are not your only options. It’s OK to hurt. I hurt for nearly four years before I came to any real peace with my sister’s death.
Sad truth can do more than happy fantasy. Humans are cathartic creatures. The poison of grief will work its way through you one way or another. It’s much better to suffer through it consciously.
To the rest of you: Sometimes it’s OK to let people hurt. Try and put the emotional need of others over your own comfort. Think hard before labeling someone a “negative person.”
Be as Jesus to the lepers of grief.
Linden Smith is a student at St. Olaf College.