My family doctor told me I was “depressed” and probably should be “on medication.” I’m not depressed. I’m sad. My son died. Doesn’t he get it? I’ll never see him again. Ever. How am I supposed to feel?”
These were the words of a grieving mom who had experienced the sudden, violent death of her 19 year old son three months earlier. Was she, as her doctor suggested, “clinically depressed?” Or experiencing a natural state of sorrow? Would “treatment” and medication alone help this distraught mother deal with her grief and find a way to go on? Or was there an even greater need for compassion, understanding and emotional support?
Our society and many of its health-care professionals casually throw around terms like “depression,” “recovery,” and “closure,” giving the impression that grieving people have mental and emotional “problems.” These doctors fail to see sorrow as a natural response to loss, and “pathologize” grief into a diagnosis. Their lack of real understanding in dealing with loss produces a textbook response. Doctors, clergy and counselors try to be helpful and lessen pain with oversimplified clichés and suggestions-often because they don’t know what else to say or do. But this is not helpful.
Helpers and experts want to be able to explain and control everything, including the unknown – and for us to be able to “get over” things, including death. But the deep, seemingly bottomless sorrow that comes from the loss of a child defies explanation – or recovery. Something more than analysis is needed; something that too few health professionals and counselors schooled in the “expert” model possess. More important than diagnosing, curing and fixing a parent’s state of mind after the death of a child is showing compassion, respect and kindness. Respect asks and listens. Respect draws people closer. Respect allows people to grieve with dignity. Compassion seeks first to understand. It is an act of courage to experience someone else’s pain in our hearts. Kindness reaches out, takes a trembling hand and holds it comfortingly.
Sadness, sorrow and heartbreak are natural human conditions, not dysfunctions. These emotions are choiceless in the face of losing a loved one. How could a mother, father, brother, sister, relative or close friend feel any other way? As bereaved parents, we need to accept that our sorrow is natural and understandable. We may become depressed and need medication, but that is another matter. We have a right to our sadness, sorrow and heartbreak. And should not be judged as “sick.” It may be hard for others, including doctors, counselors, clergy, and friends, to be around us. But we deserve their patience, support, compassion and respect.
For additional resources, please see my other related blogs, “Surviving the Death of a Child” and “Overcoming Grief: It’s Okay that It’s Not Okay.”
Note: I want to be clear. There is absolutely no shame in seeing a psychiatrist or qualified physician and getting on antidepressant or any other medication that will be helpful in taking the sharp edge off of your pain and helping you function while you are grieving and fighting your way back into life. Medication can help you to gather your strength over time and grieve your loss. But that should be decided by you and your (qualified) doctor who understands the difference between clinical depression and sorrow.
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Ken Druck, Ph.D., founder of The Jenna Druck Center in San Diego, is a renowned resilience expert, speaker, organizational and family consultant, and award-winning author of several books including, The Real Rules of Life (Hay House). Follow Ken’s blog or find him on Facebook.