What is grief? What is healing? What do they actually look like when enacted in our daily lives? Are they quantifiable, like the physical pain scale doctors use for our external frames?

These questions gained new urgency when a recent report on depression and grief came out that is driving mental health professionals insane. Until now, experts have defined the excruciating experiencing of bereavement as a state outside the official diagnosis of depression, calling it the "bereveament exclusion."

Somehow, grief was seen as a more finite, situational process you move through and out of in definable, predictable ways. As usual, it took the experts decades to figure out what us regular mopes always knew.

What is Grief?

Grieving is not a clean cut, predictable, experience with defined stages, clean borders, a linear storyline with distinct, set solutions that can be easily measured. It's a shape- shifty bastard that takes all forms, transforms you from the inside out in inexplicable ways. It can look like rage or boredom; it can make you manically join a dozen groups looking for comfort or shut down completely and close out all human connection. On Monday it feels like a tsunami of unendurable pain. On Tuesday it feels like a low-grade fever you can't shake. It makes you hyper productive to avoid the pain or puts you in a sleep-filled coma where every waking moment is agony. And it can blow all the feeling right out of you like a gust of numbness so you feel nothing at all.

However you live it, it's a very real, horrific psychological experience all its own.

According to The New York Times, which asks: "When does a broken heart become a diagnosis?" the new report says a bunch of studies show it's time to give grief its proper place in the annals of psychiatric diagnosis and give it its own status as a disorder.   

In that spirit, and in an effort to finally get public recognition for the private hell of grief, I offer this Bill of Rights for Grief.    

1. You have the right to take whatever path you take through your grief without judgment.

2. You have the right to ignore or incorporate any or all of the MOUNTAINS of advice you will get.

3. You have the right to say: "No thank you."

4. You have the right to grieve for whatever you have lost, including things you never had but ache for, like phantom limb pain.

5. You have the right to ask people to bring you pizza, not platitudes.

6. You have the right to your own definition of grief. For someone else the loss may have some unknowable reason; it may be a journey, a blessing 'in disguise', bad karma, a teachable moment, part of a plan, a test, a process, a choice. It doesn't have to be any of those things for you. It can simply be where you are at the time. Or it can be senseless, stupid, meaningless and profoundly awful.

7. You have the right not to be grateful, reasonable, inspired or inspiring.

8. You have the right not to feel or believe of be comforted by any of the following: "he's in a better place; his work here was done; she's in your heart; it's a blessing; it's no one's fault; time heals all wounds; you'll find a new one; it could have been worse." 

9. You have the right to buzz around, filling your life with activities and people so you don't have to feel a thing.

10. You have the right to feel what you can feel when you can feel it. Be numb when you are numb. Seek comfort when you can stand to. Sometimes the deep fog of grief can make all intimacy too painful - any feelings unbearable. You have the right not to bear them even when everyone around you says you MUST FEEL YOUR FEELINGS OR YOU WILL NEVER MOVE ON.

11. You have the right not to "move on."

12. You have the right to ungodly, ugly, blind rage.

13. You have the right to feel complete, utter hoplessness and despair, and to say – out loud – over and over, that it will never get better, you will never feel better – without everyone shushing you.

14. You have the right to eat or sing or say whatever you want.  

15. You have the right to be inalterably changed. The person you were before the death of your loved one is gone. You are now someone else. You don't know who yet. It's your right to find out.

16. You have the right to experience the many tricky, shape-shifting forms grief takes in whatever order you experience them: Here it looks like rage. There it takes the shape of obsession. It has many forms. They are all true. They are all lies.
You have the right to stay where you are. Sometimes there are no signs at all. Sometimes you are moving through grief's darkest depths without knowing it. It's like starting on the bottom floor of an elevator in the deepest core of the earth. Each floor you go up, the doors open, only to reveal more darkness. It all looks and feels the same, but it is not. You are moving toward where you need to be.

17. You have the right to self-pity, selfishness, self-loathing, self-awareness. You the right to be YOURSELF. Deep grief is a profoundly lonely experience, and yet, it binds us all. We all walk beside you, which will give you comfort when you are ready.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

Mourning: A Rough Ride on the High Seas is a reply by Gerri Luce LCSW

About the Author

Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum teaches at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

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