As a Psychologist, it amazes me how new the topic of grief is in the research. After all, we’ve been dying for a long time. Across the literature scientists indicate that acceptance of death is an important task in normalizing grief. A big problem with that is that we don’t even know what death is until we experience it up close and personal.
Until it’s personal, we don’t experience death, despite it being all around us. Remember Opie who wanted the little bird to fly away after he shot it with his sling shot in Andy Griffith? We thought it cute that he didn’t understand the permanence of death. But as adults we become confused because we no longer believe its permanence and now see death more as a continuation of life. Our innocence is gone, like killing a mockingbird.
Today researchers talk about Complicated or Prolonged Grief as opposed to “Normal Grief.” Well, if the bereaved now see death as a continuation, wouldn’t grief be prolonged? And now that we see the biggest event in life, after birth, differently than everyone else. Doesn’t that make us by definition, “abnormal?” Of course, it does, especially if normalcy is measured in percentages (See the link below for a quiz to see if you meet the criteria for prolonged grief).
So, to make it more palatable we talk about the “new normal.” The new normal is seeing your mom walking in her garden, or your father walking in the fields, when you know they are no longer living. Normal would call that psychotic but the new normal finds that understandable. Yet the researchers clamor for a cure. A protocol for treating prolonged grief called Complicated Grief Therapy was developed and shown to be more effective than Interpersonal Therapy or Cognitive therapy. While the research is encouraging, the way grief is measured is through behavior and self-report scales which are not always reliable, nor do they get at the essence of grief.
As a result, our behaviors improve, which is good. We go back to work, to school, and to church. We don’t cry everyday anymore. We laugh sometimes, we celebrate other peoples’ good fortune. But the new normal is that we are not focused on work or school or church like we once were. We still cry some nights, and when we are at the happiest, we are caught in a bind. Achievement and change thrill us, yet we quietly wonder what if things were different.
I think the goal of the researchers and the therapist should not be a cure. I think the focus should not simply be on the behavioral symptoms. Researchers, like many of us, need to accept death for what it is-a continuation of life. Then the goal is no longer to cure. The goal is to learn how to take the burden of reality and turn it into a badge of authenticity. We don’t see the world the same, and we are no longer of this world.
The secret is out. I’m different, I’m not going back, don’t want to. But going on is so darn hard. Somedays it kicks my butt. Especially when I think that no one gets me. Because you know why? They don’t. Thousands of scientists and theologians have tried for thousands of years and, have fallen short. I really don’t see things changing significantly. But take heart.
What I see is in the spirit of human endeavor. I see people are trying-very hard. And they appreciate you-a lot. You are appreciated more than you will ever know because you are caught up in your own suffering. The scientists, therapists, and theologians are trying to do God’s work. Until we experience God, face to face, know that his face is masked behind those around you.
In the meantime, recognize your acceptance of death means something different, your new normal is something else, and your reason to thrive can hardly be described.
Frustrating as it is, there are days when it doesn’t seem to matter as much, and days when I do connect. I am a free bird in a life in which I aspire purpose. I pray that today is one of those days for you.
Andy is a Clinical Psychologist who lost his son in a tragic motorcycle accident and now authors articles on bereavement. The quiz is available! Go to http://andymdavidson.com/Home/Pgd to find out if you may have Prolonged Grief Disorder. Look forward to his upcoming posts, and books. Follow him at his website, AndyMDavidson.com and Facebook.com/ThroughLifeandLoss to find out more about prolonged grief.