“My child died two years ago. When will this torture end?”
While a bereaved parent never “gets over it”, most do eventually assimilate the loss of a child, regaining a sense of a "new normal" over time that accommodates a bearable routine and even laughter and joy. It isn’t a moving on, but rather a moving beyond, and it’s a biological response – this resilience.
Without the ability to sustain and survive intense mental trauma, without the hope of the pain becoming physically bearable one day, the human race would have snuffed itself out long ago, after historic cycles of influenza or famine. Pioneer mothers, we know, were lucky if three of ten children reached maturity, and they loved their children no less than we do. Bereaved parents can endure. And even "recover" -- eventually.
To do that, we establish and eventually find comfort in the new world we create out of our chaos. A parent eventually may be shocked to realize that a day passed – and then days — without tears or even a thought of the deceased child. That’s as natural as if the child had established their own life, moved out of our house, and beyond the confines of daily contact. Eventually we allow ourselves to live without guilt for living when our child is dead – that’s what it amounts to — and this adaptability, too, is biologically necessary for our mental survival.
I have explained the mechanics of bereavement to Anna, but it is of little comfort. Anna cannot yet imagine a life without her son, and certainly she cannot imagine enjoying a night at the theater ever again – something she much enjoyed in her past. Before the crisis, she performed in many community theater projects. No more. A woman who can hardly pull herself out of bed, who suffers now from a litany of unexplained aches and pains, and who sees no reason to live on beyond the obligations of raising a surviving daughter, will not be able to find the energy or focus to go to rehearsals to learn lines of a play that seems silly and even meaningless now, in the scope of things.
Instead, she daily reviews her victimhood status and all of the wrongs that she has endured.
Anna now pairs her sorrows – big, small, it doesn’t matter – with people to hold accountable, to explain her pain, and so she no longer trusts anyone. She’s lost faith in God, faith in her family, faith in friends, and even faith in herself. Even I have a hard time reaching her – the one person she has come to admitting she needs help.
Your grief might have mirrored Anna’s grief at one time, but you’ve managed it. Unfortunately, Anna suffers from a condition known as Prolonged Grief Disorder, which means she’s suffering from severe grief symptoms lasting longer than six months, and she is literally stuck – and likely will remain stuck without clinical help. Her focus is laser sharp on her loss. Symptoms include severe depression and circular thinking – she can’t concentrate on anything beyond the loop replaying in her head — sleep deprivation followed by sleeping for extended periods, and irritability with the world at large.
Antidepressants prescribed by her doctor have not helped at all; she pines for her son as if he died yesterday, and her bitterness is sharp for other family members whom she irrationally holds accountable for the separation in some way in which even she cannot explain or fathom. The disorder is isolating her from the people she could most depend on for comfort.
Her disorder also is isolating her from hopes of recovery because she cannot establish a new normal until she finds the strength to let go of the old normal – the world where she felt secure and grounded, before she was uprooted and dumped somewhere else, without a map or GPS to get back. She’s been told her former life no longer exists, but her mind can’t accept it. All she knows is the desire to return to… to a world that no longer exists. A world in which her son is still alive.
Anna really believes that life holds no meaning or purpose, and she’s agitated because she has the responsibility to ease her daughter’s pain when she sees no point to encouraging her dreams. Anna no longer thinks her daughter’s interests are interesting or important, and she now holds her daughter up to the saintly status the son achieved in death – and the daughter falls short, for which Anna cannot forgive the child.
Anna’s condition makes her more susceptible to cancer, hypertension, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol or overuse of prescription drugs, and sleep impairments. “Drug addiction is the least of my worries,” she says and she’s right. I’m far more worried about the seduction of suicide in her case.
Anna’s condition is not yet condoned as an insurable diagnosis, but I expect that to change, since drugs like Paroxetine are showing some promise for Prolonged Grief Disorder, and clinical researchers are exploring new psychotherapy treatments. My role is to be a bridge to the most effective and affordable help we can find; someone who specializes in the treatment of traumatic stress disorder, and can bill an insurance company accordingly.
What I want to say, through Anna's situation, is that it’s not uncommon to feel like you are drowning in grief, but the reality is that some people do drown in it. Reach out while you still have the strength to trust someone on shore to throw you a lifeline – and then accept the help. As Winston Churchill advised, “When you’re going through hell, keep on going.” Don’t stop to sniff the rot. This isn’t what your child wanted for you — to hurt and not stop hurting. This isn’t a memorial, it’s a nightmare.