On Grief Versus Depression


In the last few years, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) classification and diagnostic tool, has included some forms of grief as a potential pathology warranting treatment. There are ongoing conversations about the significance of this delineation, but one outcome has been a public recognition of loss and bereavement as a wrenching, and meaning-rich, life challenge.

During the “love room” years, I certainly exhibited signs of what might be called depression. I often found myself in a kind of fog. Anything that took effort was just too hard. I still loved my family and friends, but preferred, often, to be alone. I was exhausted. The only people I wanted to be around were those who were grieving, too. I couldn’t tolerate anything that seemed “shallow,” which almost everything did.

I eventually did agree to begin a low dose of antidepressant to relieve some of my “symptoms.” And was grateful for the bit of lightness gained. But I also felt strongly that what I was experiencing was not just something that was “wrong,” but a true participation in a stunning Mystery of life – how someone, anyone, could be so fully here, and then gone. I was, even in the midst of such suffering, living the questions that underlie our lives. And I didn’t want to give that up.

I certainly agree that as we grieve, we need to be watchful, and allow others to keep watch, with us. We need to be open to support, and to seek it in appropriate ways. But we also can acknowledge the deep spiritual and emotional gifts that grief offers. There is no love without concurrent loss, somewhere along the way. There is no opening of the heart without suffering. And despite the wrenching pain of the loss of my aunt, I am so grateful for the chance to have known and loved her deeply, and to have landed at the love room door – even though it was wrenchingly hard – after she was gone.

The following is a little excerpt from Year 1 of the letters –

This past week, the tiny dose of antidepressant I have started to take has lifted me up a bit, and I’m glad. But I want to be careful. Whatever this invisible enclosure has been, I don’t really want to set it aside. Even though it’s been uncomfortable—weighty and sobering—I want it to unfold as it will. For one thing, it’s what I have left of you. But even more, it is real: some law of the universe of coming apart that I don’t want to miss. If even animals grieve—if wild elephants have impromptu “funerals” when one of their tribe dies, walking around the lost one in a circle, each taking a turn, trying to nudge the fallen one up, then finally fading off into the trees—who am I to pretend this isn’t happening? This low and sunken state, this rarified place?

Are you still there? Am I slipping in and out of you? Does the love room—oh, that world of just the two of us—miss our hands holding on? I have to think it does. Surely the universe must so love, and therefore miss, its children the stars, its snuffed-out sparks of light, any of us who fall.

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