March 9, 2009

"Normal" vs "complicated" grief

Meghan O'Rourke details the grief she experienced following the death of her mother

"Normal" vs "complicated" grief

One afternoon, about three weeks after my mother died, I Googled "grief."

I was having a bad day. It was 2 p.m., and I was supposed to be doing something. Instead, I was sitting on my bed (which I had actually made, in compensation for everything else undone) wondering: Was it normal to feel everything was pointless? Would I always feel this way? I wanted to know more. I wanted to get a picture of this strange experience from the outside, instead of the melted inside.
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Grief isn't rational; it isn't linear; it is experienced in waves. Joan Didion talks about this in The Year of Magical Thinking, her remarkable memoir about losing her husband while her daughter was ill: "[V]irtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of waves," she writes.

She quotes a 1944 description by Michael Lindemann, then chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. He defines grief as:
sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intensive subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.
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One thing I learned is that researchers believe there are two kinds of grief: "normal grief" and "complicated grief" (which is also called "prolonged grief"). Normal grief is a term for the feeling most bereaved people experience, which peaks within the first six months and then begins to dissipate. ("Complicated grief" does not—and evidence suggests that many parents who lose children are experiencing something more like complicated grief.) Calling grief "normal" makes it sound mundane, but, as one researcher underscored to me, its symptoms are extreme. They include insomnia or other sleep disorders, difficulty breathing, auditory or visual hallucinations, appetite problems, and dryness of mouth.

Posted by Jill Fallon at March 9, 2009 10:16 PM | Permalink