Wednesday, 2 October 2013

How long does grief last?

My brother Steve died two months ago. Those of you who’ve been following this blog will know this is a big thing for me, and explains why I haven’t posted for a while.  I’ve been mourning him. Life hasn’t been much fun.  I’ve been trudging through treacle. Sometimes I felt like I was drowning in it. 

But the past couple of weeks are better. An evening in London with Anna and Tom. A long weekend with Sue in Andalucia.  A new grandchild on the horizon. Walking the Bounding Ridge of White Nancy (yes, really – google it) last Saturday. My wellbeing recipes are starting to kick back in. I’m feeling lighter.

So for me, this time round, the worst of my grief lasted six weeks or so.

Which is interesting. The Orthodox Christian tradition is that mourning lasts for 40 days. The soul of the departed is thought to travel around during that time, visiting places of significance in its life. I wonder where Steve’s been visiting: no doubt Dublin, Corbridge, Cambridge and Newport.  I’m sure he’s called in to see us in Liverpool.   

However, as anthropologists tell us, there are many different cultures of mourning. In Victorian Britain, for example, mourning after the death of a sibling was expected to last for 6 months. So maybe I have a while to go yet.

The American Psychiatric Association would have us believe that if grief lasts for more than 2 weeks – that’s not a misprint, not two months or two years but two weeks – then we can be diagnosed with a depressive disorder and offered medical treatment.  So absurd it’s hard to believe, but it’s there in black and white in DSM-5, their current system for classifying mental disorders. 

This is dangerous nonsense.  It may help big pharma to sell more pills, but it stands in the way of realising and accepting our loss. It sanitises sadness. It medicalises this normal part of what it means to be alive, to love.    

A friend’s wife died just over a year ago. He’s beginning to think about going out with other women, but he knows he’s not really ready yet.   Someone told him ‘You should be over your grief by now, you need to see a psychiatrist to sort yourself out’.  He asked me what I thought.

My answer was simple: ‘Absolute rubbish! You’re still grieving. You can’t rush it. Take your time. You’ll know when you’re ready to move on.’

Grief is the price of love.

It drags us down. It drains us of energy. It hurts, physically. As CS Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed, time may be a healer but he’s not a very good anaesthetist. We just have to hang on in there, hide under the duvet and let it wash over us.  Grief lasts as long as it lasts. There’s no timetable, no deadline.  

But then, eventually, one day, it starts to get easier. 

If you are grieving now, I hope that day is not too far away.


  1. Well said, too many people feel guilty for grieving. There is no time frame it takes as long as it takes.

  2. An interesting post. I agree with most of what what you've written about the duration of grief but I think you are being unfair to the DSM. Also using it to take a pop at Big Pharma is a low blow. In the defence of the DSM it makes an attempt to define behavioral disorders and mental illnesses. As such it's pretty much the only game in town. Certainly it can be used to over diagnose, fit patients into convenient categories and makes it easier for hard-pressed physicians to prescribe a pill for a given condition. And whether the DSM V is an improvement over the DSM IV maybe a debate worth having (I view the publication as a kind of living document that can be [needs to be] constantly amended). But to isolate certain conditions and ridicule them is not reasonable and until neurochemistry advances considerably, mental health diagnoses will need to be made with the help of manuals such as the DSM.

    Perhaps one of the reasons I'm sounding off here is the way in which mental health is regarded in the UK. At the tabloid level, bi-polar disorder has been referred to as the "celebrity syndrome" and "fashionable" (because many individuals in the public eye have been diagnosed with it) and ADHD as "naughty child syndrome" with the therapy as some form of corporal punishment. The legions of ignorant public that are happy to weigh in on the topic without an iota of background knowledge is staggering. The prevailing view on all but the most serious of disorders is still Victorian i.e. that mental/behavioural dysfunction is a sign of character weakness and the individual concerned should be able to pull themselves up by their boot laces. Much more needs to be done to dispel these myths and remove the considerable stigma that is associated with mental health. As such I see the DSM, regardless of iteration, as a valuable guide for the diagnosis and management of behavioural disorders and its pros vastly outweigh its cons.

    Finally as you have used grief as an example, I will do the same. A friend of mine lost her 90 year old mother this summer. Before the old lady passed away, she was afflicted with numerous conditions including RA, hypertension and stroke(s). My friend, knowing the end was in sight, was wracked with anxiety in the months before her mother's death. When it came the anxiety almost immediately flip-flopped into inconsolable grief and she became quite dysfunctional. She'd have huge emotional outbursts (anger/tears) in public but has also become withdrawn, suffers from insomnia and now, by her own admission, is drinking too much. Grief that propels anyone into such a dark, depressed, state of mind sorely needs therapy of some kind (maybe multiple types) and pharmaceutical intervention is warranted (in this case I would say prudent. My friend would fit the DSM two week criterion for a depressive disorder very accurately. So please be fair: the DSM may appear black and white but psychiatrists and clinical psychologists know that all behavioural disorders have overlapping symptoms and their documentation in the Manual is just a guide.