A major problem with the proposal is that the symptoms of complicated or prolonged grief—such as yearning, sorrow, and sadness—look much the same as those of normal grief. The new diagnosis, spearheaded by two professors of psychiatry, Katherine Shear and Holly Prigerson, at Columbia and Harvard University respectively, would likely characterize complicated grief as a constellation of symptoms that can include intense feelings of sadness, bitterness, and loneliness; difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and detachment and agitation, among others. (Shear and Prigerson each have different definitions; it’s not yet clear what version would be adopted if it were included.)
The inclusion of the diagnosis would be less troubling if we lived in a culture that better understood the fact that grief takes time—and knew how to support it. People used to wear mourning clothes for a year or more, and many cultures have mourning rituals that cluster around the first anniversary of a death. But in the 20th century, Americans began to see the experience primarily as a private and a psychological one rather than a communal one, popularizing Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ tidy “stage theory” of grief (which moves from “denial” to “acceptance”), and valorizing a “muscling-through-it” approach, to damaging effect.
That’s because grief is intricately bound up with love.
As Thomas Lynch elegantly put it,
“Grief is the price we pay for being
close to one another.
If we want to avoid our grief,
we simply avoid each other.”