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Long-term grief defined as mental illness
Now and Then
roger branch

The powers that be in the world of psychiatry/clinical psychology have declared that I am mentally ill, or at least emotionally disturbed. The last issue of the psychiatric DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) includes grief that persists as long as a year as clinical disorder. Since professionals in this realm are socially mandated labelers, this must be true.

However, I draw on 65-plus years of academic preparation, experience as a pastor and counselor, a large body of published research by others and my own research and publication to disagree with that conclusion. The world is full of people who declare, “You never get over it.” Some people do, but others do not. It depends upon individual differences, the relationship between deceased and survivor, prospects for the future for the survivor, social support available and other factors.

As for me, I still grieve for Annette almost 10 years after her death on June 24, 2013. Married when I was 20 years old and she 18, we faced uncounted challenges together and were lifelong lovers. Even when angry with one another, we almost breathed in unison. She was part of me and left a void that can’t be filled when she had to leave me.

There would be something wrong with one who did not endure situational depression under such emotional dismemberment.

I am not alone in living with long-term grief. My paternal grandmother, Sarah “Sally” Wilkes Branch, lost her husband and four children to death and sometimes in misty-eyed conversation spoke of her long-dead toddler, Hattie: “That child had the bluest eyes I ever saw.”

My maternal grandfather, Rudolph “Rudy” Williams, lost both of his sons, men in their mid-40s, to a rare disease. He talked about them and his loss for decades until dementia robbed his speech of reason. I hope that it wiped his mind of memories that haunted him.

“Pennie” is a relatively young widow who in a short period of time lost her father, mother and husband. She stays busy with other people, but grief still shines through in her posts on email and Facebook. The son of my much loved cousin and her husband died of cancer much longer than a year ago, but is daily present in her conversations. During 60-plus years in ministry, I have brought comfort and counsel to hundreds of bereaved people. In many cases, they carried aspects of grief with them to their graves or still go about life with grief as part of who they are. My experience is supported by research results and publications by others.

One problem involved in defining abnormal behavior lies in determining what is normal. There is wide variation in how people respond to death and bereavement from one culture to another, even between sub-cultures in the same country. If a behavior cannot be linked to a scientifically determined biological anomaly, is it a medical issue? If there is a clear pattern among people in a given culture or sub-culture, is it not probable that it is a social phenomenon?

We know with reasonable certainty that culturally defined responses to grief do differ, sometimes dramatically. Since humans — for all practical purposes — share the same DNA, there is no biological determinants for these differences. Therefore, “normal” is culturally defined, thus variable.

In this society, deviant or abnormal behavior is tied to whether or not it interferes with expected, predictable interactions between individuals, especially in the realms of economy, government and family. Abnormal behavior that does not affect anyone else is mostly ignored. That which disrupts work, buying and selling, family dynamics, greatly disturbs the comfort level of others or alerts law enforcement cannot escape attention for long. The usual solution is to put a label on it leading to some prescribed societal response to “fix” it.

Such fixes often do not work. Consider contemporary murderous violence or drug abuse. In the case of persistent grief, there are no medical cures because causes are not biological. Medication is not the answer. Once sympathetic family physicians prescribed valium for people in their worst hours of grief, but it was discovered that “grief work” had to be done later. Grief sharing groups, like group therapy groups for other things, help some but fail others. Too few clinicians understand the nature of the problem to be effective one on one.

It is important to understand that grieving people cope. They adapt to loss. Most people who lose limbs learn to cope through prostheses. Most who become blind or deaf learn to recover important aspects of life even though they are forever changed. Learning how to live without the “other” is very hard and takes time. Those who grieve are forever scarred. Civility and grace require that those around them allow them to be the new and lessened people that life has forced them to be.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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