The God Squad: How long should grief last?
In a fascinating and well-written article for the New York Times on March 18, 2022, Ellen Barry reports on the decision of the American psychiatric community to add “prolonged grief disorder” to the DSM-5 (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which is their manual of human brokenness. Basically, they believe that if you are still unable to resume your daily activities and are sunk in daily and unending grief over a year after the death of a loved one, you might be mentally ill. Some psychiatrists disagree with this effort to psychologize and stigmatize grief and I agree with those dissenters. Father Tom Hartman, my best friend and partner in the God Squad, has now been dead for over six years and I am just now decisively emerging from the fog of grief that enveloped me on Feb. 16, 2016.
Let me share with you what I know about grief from dealing with it in others and myself for over 50 years.
The most important thing I know is that the measure of grief is the measure of love. It is obvious but deeply true that the more you loved a person, the longer and deeper will be your grief at their passing. The greater the love — the greater the grief. Brief and shallow griefwork is only possible when you had a brief and shallow love. Love is our most powerful act of self-surrender and consequently the death of the one to whom we surrendered our soul is catastrophic.
There is only one way to avoid this and the Buddhists figured it out. The first truth of Buddhism is that the world is full of suffering (dukah) and this suffering is the result of our attachment to the living things of this world. The solution for Buddhists is the release from all attachments to the world (called tanhakaya). In the West, our religious traditions take the opposite path. We are taught to embrace the sacrifice of loving others and the consequent pain that comes from the death of that sacrificial love. Christianity is in fact built precisely on the sacrificial love and suffering of Christ.
So how long should a deep grief that was produced by a deep love last?
My experience is that only after at least a year will the mourner feel that he or she is on the way back to a new normal where the memories of the departed are in a place of memory that is no longer spiritually and psychologically debilitating. I also explain to mourners that during that first year of their griefwork they will experience peaks and valleys in which feelings of recovery and progress are crushed by a sudden reversal into a level of grief that immediately followed the death. When we break a bone, every day the broken bone heals up a little in a fairly straight line from pain to wellness. However, a broken heart does not heal in the same way. It heals in fits and starts — advances and regressions. That is the way our souls heal up.
One day a few months ago, I got a message from Tommy as clear as a bell, “Marc, you have mourned me long enough. Now it is time to get off your rear and back to work on the God Squad.” That revelation led to my decision to begin a podcast that would continue to spread our mission statement: “We know enough about how we are different and not enough about how we are the same.” I announced the birth of “The God Squad podcast with Rabbi Marc Gellman” last week and it is on all the podcast platforms now. It is my statement from my soul that I am done mourning my best friend. My memories of Tommy will never end but my griefwork has finally ended.
So, to the assembled psychiatric community who want to label my grief “prolonged grief disorder” I say, “You did not know him. You did not love him. Six years of griefwork was exactly the right amount of time.”
To those of you, dear readers, who are in the midst of your own grief-fog I pray for your healing, and I lift up for praise your ability to love another person more than life itself. If you are able, share with me what grief has taught you. I urge you to do one thing above all else – be patient with your grief. Be patient for as long as it takes and then one day your loved one will come to you and tell you, “You have mourned me long enough. It is time to get back to life.”
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at email@example.com. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including “Religion for Dummies,” co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman. Also, the new God Squad podcast is now available.)
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