Someone you loved died? There’s a pill for that.

I read with dismay an article in The Guardian that spoke about the American Psychiatric Association’s move to create a new disorder that deals with grief. The article said the APA is planning on classifying anyone who grieves longer than two weeks over the death of a loved one as depressed.

They’re kidding us, right? Who in their right mind believes death, especially an unexpected or violent death, can be processed in just a couple of short weeks or even a few months?

I went to the website myself to see if this was true. I read the summaries of the proposed changes to the DSM-5 and didn’t find the two-week timetable The Guardian wrote about, but it was obvious there had been an outcry from medical professionals and others over the new findings.

The changes, whether they classify prolonged grief as two weeks or two months or even two years, bring up the question about what we consider “normal” behavior and how we decide to classify an illness. This is important because, as the article in The Guardian points out, “…once a behaviour has been labelled as an illness, it becomes a legitimate target for treatment by Big Pharma. The transformation of bereavement into a mental disorder will create a new global market for antidepressant therapy.”

I can speak from experience on this one. The first several months after my husband was killed, I was told by every doctor I saw minus one, that I should take antidepressants. “You’ll feel better,” they said, “it’ll help you move on.”

I have nothing against antidepressants. I believe there are legitimate reasons for taking them, but I don’t count grief as one of them. I don’t see how popping pills under the assumption that it will magically cure the pain of loss as any different than using elicit drugs or alcohol to try and dull the pain. We cannot simply medicate our way through life’s challenges, and yet this is exactly what Big Pharma and many doctors are pushing us to do.

We want a quick fix to the difficult work of grief. And grief is most certainly difficult. But on the other end of it is something we oftentimes cannot find without undergoing that work – inner strength. And it’s our inner strength that helps us understand we are capable of overcoming so much more than we thought possible.

But perhaps the biggest reason I am offended with categorizing prolonged grief as an illness is that it diminishes the bereavement process. It turns it into something we can “fix,” and there are things in this life that cannot be fixed, only dealt with over time. It also assumes the process will take an expected course instead of allowing for the fact that every loss is different and every person is unique in how they deal with that loss.

This is especially true for children. I could write a book about all the times in which adults have wondered aloud why my child is still grieving over the loss of his father. It’s been several years, after all. Surely his behavior couldn’t be the result of his father’s murder? And if it is, why aren’t you doing something to fix it? Why aren’t you medicating him?

Never mind that children deal with complex emotional issues like death in ways much different than adults. Never mind that children revisit grief as they mature and have a new understanding of life and death. We do not want to give them the time, the patience, the understanding, or the okay to grieve at their pace and in their own way.

This impatience and need to treat grief as something that can be fixed is commonplace among school administrators and psychologists and of course, psychiatrists. It’s difficult dealing with the uncomfortable, raw emotions associated with a child or an adult who is grieving.

But it is this uneasiness with grief that should concern the APA. Why are Americans so uncomfortable with a process all of us will eventually undergo? Do we really believe happiness is the only acceptable, or normal, feeling?

Life is hard. And joyful and sad and scary and thrilling. That’s normal. And no, we don’t need a pill for it.


  1. mike slater

    Julie, everyone deals with grief in their own way. Some take longer than others to get over it. Some people never do. I think a lot of it has to do with the age and the circumstances of the one that passed away.

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