Amanda Gates

My Thoughts on Grief

My mom passed away last April 21, after a nearly six-year battle with Multiple Myeloma and kidney failure. She endured dialysis, chemo, a stem cell transplant, weight loss, hair loss and a heart attack in those six years, and those were just the physical strains. Watching her go through all of that was it’s own special pain. Watching her choose to let go, another. The fight within myself of wanting her to be at peace and not wanting to let her go was nearly unmanageable.

Nothing, not one single thing, prepared me for this loss. A year earlier, I thought birthing a baby and taking care of a newborn was the hardest thing in the world. In retrospect, for me, that was easy as pie compared to losing my mom. Grieving for her, and managing that grief, has been a continuous dance for the last 11 months. It ebbs and flows; there are good days and bad days. But have I ever felt mentally unwell? No.

Which is why I found the idea that prolonged grief could be categorized as a mental illness a bit worrisome. I firmly believe in mental health and the need to take care of one’s mind just as much as one’s body. And I have no doubt that for some, the loss of a parent or a child or anyone important could bridge to depression. But as Leeat Granek & Meghan O’Rourke* put it in a recent Slate article, grief happens to everyone.

“Unlike most disorders in the [Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders], it is a condition we will all experience. It is not a disease and it has no place in a book dedicated to listing mental disorders. In a culture that has largely turned grief into a private experience rather than a communal one, the decision to include grief in the DSM risks doing more harm than good, making it easier than ever to view those who are simply experiencing a painful rite of passage as abnormal.”

Because, honestly, I feel/felt completely alone in my grief, especially in those first few months. Even if you’ve lost a mother, too, your experience is different than mine. Even my own brother’s experience is different than mine. So, to feel alone in grief, and then God forbid that grief goes on “too long” according to medical standards, I would’ve felt even worse to be labeled mentally ill. I would’ve felt like even more of an outcast.

I already cried in my cube at work on a daily basis (I still sometimes do, if something I read or hear reminds me of her) and worried people would see me and think, “Oh, she’s not over it yet.” I hated how simple conversations could bring tears to my eyes and a hushed tone to the room. Leeat & O’Rourke nailed that, too:

“The problem with [the potential designation] is that more people’s grief will be diagnosed as abnormal or extreme, in a culture that already leads mourners to feel they need to just “get over it” and “heal.””

I worried I was being too sensitive when comments like, “How was your Mother’s Day?” made me want to curl up in a ball. I hated that some people completely ignored what happened to me, never asking me how I was doing; but then also, there were certain people I didn’t want to talk to about it anyway. So, maybe that was for the best? I was insulted (and then felt bad about it), when people mentioned grief counseling to me, some three weeks after her passing. Are you kidding? Give me some time to work through this on my own first; I don’t think I’m handling this any different than anyone else would, I thought. While I think therapy and counseling can help in many situations, I didn’t think in this case I was in any way out of the ordinary with my grieving. (However, if I saw no progress in my grieving, or inability in life, that's another story. Case by case.) Again, Slate article to the rescue:

“To date, the research has consistently shown that grief counseling and medications do not alleviate grief; they seem most helpful in the cases of people who had pre-existing mental health issues.”

The best advice I latched on to came from a variety of sources; so many people said this next idea in one way or another. Grief never goes away. You just learn to fit it into your life and live with it. It changes you and becomes a part of you. While I no longer cry every single day (I would say I had three to four months of that), I still think of her every single day—sometimes with tears, sometimes with a smile. I’ve discovered, too, that more tears come lately as the one-year anniversary creeps up on me. I get sad that she’s missed her grandson learning his ABCs and all his future milestones. I get sad that she doesn’t call me at work anymore. I get sad that I can’t share great books with her, like The Forgotten Garden. She would’ve loved that book.

I will always be sad; I will always miss her. But that’s just one part of me. That doesn’t define me. Because I’m happy, too.

* Meghan O’Rourke has written extensively on grief and the loss of her mother. While they hit very close to home and were hard to read, her essays definitely hit on feelings I was experiencing last spring.

Comments

Thank you

Thank you for sharing this. I wasn't looking for an article on grief, but it seems timely for me. Unfortunately, I have had many losses (one of them very recent) and it doesn't get any easier, but I've learned to cope and keep moving forward. I thought your comment about grief never going away sounded so sad, but realized that it is so true. My current grief isn't just about my current loss. It includes all the losses I've had.

I know everyone is different in how they grieve, and how they sympathize with those that are greiving, but iI am surprised on how many people miss the mark when it comes to providing a shoulder to cry on or simply a kind word. I try to remember the kindest words or gestures I've received from others in my times of grief such as a memory share or even a card acknowledging the loss and provide that for others in their time of need.

Again, your sentiments were well put. And thank you...

I know.

Shannon,

It IS hard to realize... that grief never really goes away. But I also think of myself as a realist and it's more comforting to accept this fact rather than always wondering when it will go away.

And obviously, the journey is different for everyone. Certain things and people you'll grieve over more than others. My grief over a loss is different than yours, as we've discussed. But to know you can survive it and then again be happy on the other side of it - well, that's hopeful, I think.

In some ways, I find this

In some ways, I find this statement comforting, and in others really scary:

"Grief never goes away. You just learn to fit it into your life and live with it. It changes you and becomes a part of you."

Because in some ways you want grief to just leave you alone, you don't want to know it's going to be with you forever. But I suppose if it never leaves, it's comforting to know that you learn to fit in into your life...

Great post

So, so interesting. It really does make you think about our culture, and how we seem to be so isolated in our grief. But like you said, it is isolating because you are the only one who experiences it. Everything you wrote was very well said, as always. I am so impressed with how you can put these things so eloquently. And yes, grief never leaves. I also still grieve for my childhood dog - and all the other people I've lost along the way. You never do stop grieving for them, even when you're happy. Thinking of you - and sending hugs your way.

Nail on the head A. I'm proud

Nail on the head A. I'm proud of you for this post, not just because you write so fantastically well, but because your experience in written word can (and does) help others.

I went to a therapist for grief and felt like I failed because it did NOTHING for me. I still felt that way until I read your post. So, thank you.

Keep up the good work friend! You are always inspiring me!

Thanks everyone!

Thanks for your comments. I appreciate them a lot.

Katie, I was even going to mention pets, because it's been 10 years since I lost my dog and I still get sad thinking about him. Pets count, too, for sure!

Right on, as always, my friend

I'm so grossed out by that article. We have definitely been socialized to not grieve too publicly, to get "over it" quickly, etc. But those who have experienced grief, really got down in the trenches with it, get it. Grief is a real thing, it's an emotion that gets managed over time, hopefully. But it's not a freakin' mental illness. Schizophrenia, for example, and grief: not the same. More awareness of how to care for the grieving or how to make sure you're grieving but OK would be good.

I lost my grandmother in the early '90s, and I was very close with her, but I wouldn't say it was even on the level of what I feel when I even think about losing my mother. I still cry when I talk about her. It ebbs and flows. Sometimes I laugh or smile and sometimes I can be midstory about her and a floodgate opens without warning. And that's been nearly 20 years! Tears come to MY eyes when I think about you losing your mom, and I really only know her through you.

When my beloved Molly dog died, my sister and I talked about how I can get new dogs and love them, but that there would always be a special spot for Mo in my heart, a spot that will now be filled only with memories and not tangible experiences. I love my Mur and Ern, but I still miss her and sometimes cry over losing her, too. And she was a dog.

Love is love; loss is loss. They are huge and unwieldy and impossible to define. And you're right; grieving process is as unique as each person who experiences it (and people who think they'll get off scot-free are kidding themselves...compassion, people!) Neither of those things change—they, at best, just evolve—when it involves someone who meant the world to you. Period.

well said

This post couldn't have been easy for you. You've written beautifully on grief and your mom before, but I think that was to a smaller audience. And because it's so close to the anniversary of her passing, like you said, you are extra tender so that must have made it difficult, too. I'm glad you wrote on it though.
You brought up a few of the passages I reacted most to, so I'm guessing many others feel the same and hopefully that will have an impact on those trying to change the DSM.
People should be allowed to grieve without worrying that if we still don't feel "better" after a certain point that we could be labeled ill. After reading O'Rourke's book, I thought a lot about how if we were allowed to (or if it were socially acceptable to) grieve in a more traditional it would be helpful. She talks about the way people in other cultures grieve, and even how we used to grieve as early Americans. Pushing emotions away, expecting people to move on, ignoring the grief (or the griever) is just not healthy.

Amazed that you could put

Amazed that you could put that all into words so well. Grief is so tricky. I've been trying to figure out how to help my dad after losing his mother/my grandmother this summer. He doesn't talk about it much. You've renewed my drive to keep checking in on him but to allow him to grieve in his own way. As always, I'm here if you need me.

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