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Well Becoming

a blog about being well, becoming well, staying well - and flourishing. Written by a professor and family doctor living between Liverpool, UK and Granada, Spain

How long does grief last?
02 October 2013 @ 20:36

My brother Steve died two months ago. Those of you who’ve been following this blog will know this is a big thing for me, and explains why I haven’t posted for a while. I’ve been mourning him. Life hasn’t been much fun. I’ve been trudging through treacle. Sometimes I felt like I was drowning in it.


But the past couple of weeks are better. An evening in London with Anna and Tom. A long weekend with Sue in Andalucia. A new grandchild on the horizon. Walking the Bounding Ridge of White Nancy (yes, really – google it) last Saturday. My wellbeing recipes are starting to kick back in. I’m feeling lighter.


So for me, this time round, the worst of my grief lasted six weeks or so.


Which is interesting. The Orthodox Christian tradition is that mourning lasts for 40 days. The soul of the departed is thought to travel around during that time, visiting places of significance in its life. I wonder where Steve’s been visiting: no doubt Dublin, Corbridge, Cambridge and Newport. I’m sure he’s called in to see us in Liverpool.


However, as anthropologists tell us, there are many different cultures of mourning. In Victorian Britain, for example, mourning after the death of a sibling was expected to last for 6 months. So maybe I have a while to go yet.


The American Psychiatric Association would have us believe that if grief lasts for more than 2 weeks – that’s not a misprint, not two months or two years but two weeks – then we can be diagnosed with a depressive disorder and offered medical treatment. So absurd it’s hard to believe, but it’s there in black and white in DSM-5, their current system for classifying mental disorders.


This is dangerous nonsense. It may help big pharma to sell more pills, but it stands in the way of realising and accepting our loss. It sanitises sadness. It medicalises this normal part of what it means to be alive, to love.


A friend’s wife died just over a year ago. He’s beginning to think about going out with other women, but he knows he’s not really ready yet. Someone told him ‘You should be over your grief by now, you need to see a psychiatrist to sort yourself out’. He asked me what I thought.


My answer was simple: ‘Absolute rubbish! You’re still grieving. You can’t rush it. Take your time. You’ll know when you’re ready to move on.’


Grief is the price of love.


It drags us down. It drains us of energy. It hurts, physically. As CS Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, time may be a healer but he’s not a very good anaesthetist. We just have to hang on in there,hide under the duvet and let it wash over us. Grief lasts as long as it lasts. There’s no timetable, no deadline.


But then, eventually, one day, it starts to get easier.


If you are grieving now, I hope that day is not too far away.

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