Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum

Because I'm the Mom

The Myth of 'Complicated' Grief

It's pretty simple: Stop pathologizing my pain.

Posted Feb 25, 2016

It appears "complicated grief" is the new black. The idea that somehow there are more successful ways to grieve and there are more pathological forms of grief has taken a tight hold. This has me wondering: Must there always be a hierarchy?  

Is how I feel a genuinely, diagnosably more pathological form of grief, or am I simply more honest, less distracted? In other words, could my shame-less, unvarnished, unapologetic, sitting-in-the-muck, I am where I am form of grief actually be a sign of mental health, rather than mental disorder? 

According to the Center for Complicated Grief, my grief is somehow griefier than a more normal griever in the following ways:

“Grief” is a simple word for a complex experience and in that sense all grief is complicated. However we use the term complicated in the medical sense, meaning that something is interfering with coping with a loss. You can think of losing a loved one as somewhat like a physical injury and psychological issues that interfere with grief as like an infection that complicates wound healing. This is what we mean by complicated grief. ... Bereavement is a universal human experience and our minds contain mechanisms for successful coping and finding a satisfactory “new normal”. Humans are naturally resilient. When grief complications are present, this natural resilience is thwarted."

Get Outta My Grief!

And yet I so resent and resist the idea of 'stuck' as related to grief. What does that even mean? Who decides? We are where we are. And this notion of an additional pathology to the way I live with my grief—complicated. Isn't it all complicated? Isn't a catastrophic loss a big, complicated horror? Why does it make everybody else feel better to label MY feelings?

My grief clarity and honesty makes folks uncomfortable. It is burdensome. If you ask me how I am, I will not say "fine." I have, as they say in the theater, "given circumstances." What has happened off stage, before you meet the actor, imbues her character with context. What you see on stage is colored by her given circumstances off stage. My given circumstances are that having suffered a catastrophic loss, I am never really "fine." I miss him every single second of every single day with ever single cell of my being. It does not make me feel closer to him to miss him. It simply is this way. It is not a choice. It does not feel like a choice. I could think about something else. I could drink or gamble or shop or distract my brain. And I do—by working, parenting, teaching, writing, dancing, loving, being in community. But I am never alone. My loss, my Great Ache, is a breath away.

I lost the most important person in my life. Traumatically. He was murdered by doctors, doctors who, had they paid attention, read the chart, listened to him, would have diagnosed him properly, given him a simple medication and he would have been fine. He was 37. He was the best person I have ever known. We had our whole lives left. And he is gone. Vanished. 

And Still I Rise

I work. I parent. I love. I live every single day in productive ways. I am still here. I laugh. I deal. I'm HERE. But it has been six years since our tragic loss and it feels like it was six seconds ago. And maybe it always will. Is that complicated? You bet.

I have tried it all. Every therapy. Every religion. Every psychological art form we have to master grief. And still it rises: immediate, urgent, relentless, demanding. My grief is a shape-shifty bastard: at times a fog, at times a coma; a pain so searing it literally sucks the breath out of me; a gentle, sweet breeze of memory; a warm hand pressing deep into my chest; a fiery burning rage down my spine, singeing my lungs; a darkness beside/within me; a wistful teary thought; my Great Ache, always. 

So I have accepted there is no answer, no why, no ground, no reason. I do not grasp for some larger truth or meaning. I am groundless, faithless, present, open-hearted, hopeful. But I expect nothing. I accept how I feel. It may change, morph, move, or not. It is what it is. Literally. I have not failed. There is no goal, no end game. I surrender entirely. I tried fighting it away, talking it away, blinking it away, visualizing it, naming it, deconstructing it away. All of it. And here we are. Still. Like it happened five minutes ago. I'm not fetal on the floor. Maybe I'm at work. Or at a parent-teacher conference. But I can feel the full weight of the loss, right here, right now, and I let it take me, as if I have a choice.

Move On? Where would you have me go?

So here I sit. Still in what you'd call complicated grief. Stuck, you'd say. Can't move forward. Can't move on. Where, exactly would you have me move on to?  He is gone. I have chosen not to move on to wherever he is. So I stay here. With my grief. Living a complicated, merely mortal life. I don't know why I'm being told I'm sicker than anybody else. Maybe they're in denial. Or numb. Or using activities or drugs to block or distract. Is that less complicated? I have nothing between me and my pain. No emotional cartilage. Just bone on bone. No denial to smooth the edges. No distractions to soften the blows. Just the abyss, the presence of an immeasurable, unspeakable absence, right there, at every step, just a breath away.

It's actually quite simple.

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