Recently at a cocktail party, I met a woman whose husband had died about four years ago. She mentioned him a lot. Not monologues, but frequent references to him — things he’d said, jokes he’d made, his foibles, his likes and dislikes. Some of it was in the past tense and some in the present. Theirs had been a long marriage — over 30 years — and clearly it was still going on.
Here’s another story. A woman I know, also happily married for many decades, was devastated by her husband’s death from cancer. A year later, though still missing her husband, she was surprised to find herself falling deeply in love with an old family friend.
Grief is a lot weirder than we think. It doesn’t follow a logical course or conform to any predictable timetable. Yet we persist in making comments about how other people are doing it. And worse, we are constantly, secretly convinced that because our own grief doesn’t proceed according to our expectations, we must be doing it wrong.
It’s time to get over it. Time to move on. Time to get on with your life. We say these things to and about one another all the time. And we say them to ourselves.
“I don’t seem to be able to get over this,” a friend said of her father’s suicide, which happened just over a year ago.
“That’s because it’s so recent,” I said.
She looked relieved — oh, good, someone got it, she wasn’t crazy — and dismayed: She’d been hoping that maybe it would be over soon.
Like a lot of other people, I was appalled when I read about the American Psychiatric Association’s proposal to identify something called “complicated grief disorder” — intense, acute grief that persists for more than about six months after bereavement. The rationale is that since most people get over a death in six months (um, excuse me, but who are these people?), the new diagnosis would allow people who struggle with prolonged grief to get treatment. “Get treatment” presumably means “get insurance to pay for treatment.” Do we really need to pathologize grief and stigmatize mourners in order to pierce the obtuse heart (or heartlessness) of an insurance company?
I asked a psychiatrist to translate the term “intense, acute grief.” He said, “Miss Havisham.” I understood: One end of the spectrum would be someone like the Dickens character, jilted by her fiancé, who spends her life in her tattered, yellowed wedding dress, brooding over the rotten remains of the wedding feast and grieving her lost love by punishing everyone else.
But every grief is different, just as every death and every mourner is different. When my father killed himself in 1991, I sort of kept functioning, and I sort of didn’t. I took care of my son, kept the house going, met my writing deadlines. I also stopped sleeping. I gained 30 pounds. I was numb, and it went on for years. It wouldn’t have helped to be told I had a disorder, or to have what I was feeling labeled as “complicated grief.” I knew damn well it was complicated. I didn’t need anyone judging how long it was taking me to get over it. What I needed was the people — including the psychiatrist — who said, “Of course.”
When my mother died four years ago, after a long illness, the grief was different. It was hard and sad, but it felt straightforward: I missed her.
We shouldn’t pathologize grief; we should let it be whatever it is. I look around at friends who’ve had losses, and I see how long, and how powerfully, many continue to feel grief years later. It doesn’t mean that they’re paralyzed and not going on with their lives. But it does mean that grief can be a continuing presence.
Grief is unpredictable, widely variable, inconsistent. It’s weird because it’s supposed to be weird. We don’t cry when we think we ought to. We keep crying when we think we should be done. We watch the Red Sox game the night after the funeral. We don’t change the sheets for a month. We tell the junk man to take everything. We save an old voice mail for years. We get over it when we accept that we’ll never quite get over it. It takes as long as it takes.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’