2020 Depression: Why Grief Is Good

Grief is a normal response to the loss of the familiar.

Posted Jun 03, 2020

A man dies before my eyes, an unrelenting knee on his neck. Protests turn violent. Looting in the streets, tear gas, city-wide curfews. I switch the channel. A pandemic rages, millions lose their livelihoods, the world is masked and strange to me. I feel numb one minute, overwhelmed the next, and still, I can’t stop watching.

As part of my recovery from mental illness, I’ve found it essential to identify and label my feelings. It makes it easier to describe them to my doctor, plus it soothes me to think that someone else has been there before, at least long enough to give the emotion a name. But lately, I’ve found this identification process quite a struggle, no doubt because these times are unprecedented and nobody really knows what’s going on, let alone what the hell to call it.

Am I anxious? Irritable? Angry? Morose? All of the above, all at once? It doesn’t make sense that I should feel lethargic at the same time I’m restless, or that I should crave interaction all the while wishing everyone would leave me alone. I know that people with bipolar disorder often experience what’s called a “mixed state,” where elements of mania and depression collide (e.g., excessive energy combined with extreme self-loathing). But I’m familiar with how a mixed state feels, and I don’t think that’s what’s going on with me now. My agitation is of a different sort: I don’t feel sorry for myself, I feel intensely sorry for the world. I’m soul-sick with empathy for all who are suffering.

The last time I felt this way was after my father’s death in 1997. I was an open wound back then—anything and everything could make me cry. I had to stop listening to music altogether because I heard sorrow in every song, including the upbeat ones. Following the well-known advice of Norman Cousins, I sought out humor to heal myself, only to find that even the Marx Brothers seemed stale and overwrought. Distraction was my goal; the result was only an increased sense of isolation. If Groucho Marx can’t make you laugh, are you sure that you’re still human?

Now I pace back and forth in my bedroom, feeling too much of this and too little of that and not sure if I should be alarmed about any of it. Usually, I’m quick to respond to my shifting moods: call my doctors, tweak my meds. But I don’t think what I’m experiencing right now can be tweaked away—and yesterday I figured out why.

I’m grieving again.

I realized this when I read an article about how to cope with the death of a family member. The article quoted Dr. Katherine Shear, director of the Columbia School of Social Work’s oddly named Center for Complicated Grief (is there such a thing as uncomplicated grief?). The doctor said something that smacked me right between the eyes: “Grief is the form love takes when we lose someone or something.”

Yes! That’s it! I loved my life. I miss my life. I miss the little table in the back of Le Pain Quotidien, where I used to write for hours on end. I miss communing in the dark with total strangers at the movies. I miss rifling through racks of vintage clothing instead of confronting barren shelves. I miss the sincerity of my friend Marilyn’s hugs, which warmed my entire body. I miss my ideal of America, that didn’t countenance defeat or embrace hatred. I miss hearing “Have a good day” instead of “Stay safe.” I miss knowing when people are smiling at me.

So I’m grieving again, and now it makes sense. I’m honoring all the things that have been taken from me by mourning them appropriately. I’m not chemically depressed or clinically anxious or anything else in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I’m simply loving what I’ve lost. It’s a natural response and I’m not going to worry about it anymore. I’m just going to feel it and call it grief.