Grief as Mental Illness

A Huffington Post article posted today discussed the idea of grief being medically classified as a mental illness, treatable with medications much the way depression is handled by the medical community. The article was based on an article that was published in The New York Times on Jan 25th.

While I can see that many of the symptoms of grief are the same as that of depression, I don’t necessarily agree that medicating grief is always the way to go.You can’t avoid grief when dealing with loss. Trying to avoid it simply prolongs it, ensuring that at some unexpected point in the future, often during a time of secondary loss, that same grief will come back with a solid shot right between the eyes.

I’m not saying there aren’t benefits to meds when dealing with grief. I walked a very winding road to be able to write that sentence. There was a time, not that long ago when I was pretty dead set against them. But I have seen their benefits first hand, and so I now I’m a little less pugnacious on that one.

But there is a danger to medicating grief.

In grief we grasp for crutches, the way a drowning person clutches for anything that floats. Sometimes the crutches are innocuous: support groups, therapists, massage, meditation. Sometimes, the crutches are a little more destructive: alcohol, illicit drugs, gambling, shopping, sex, work, though you could make an argument that the innocuous treatments are not always innocuous and the destructive ones are not always destructive. Everyone is different.

We do these things so we don’t have to feel the overwhelming emotions that come with grief. Sometimes they are just too much to bear. They exhaust us, they effect our families, our jobs, our self identities. Grief strips us bare and we have to learn the hard way how to build ourselves back into functioning human beings again.

After two completely natural childbirths I wondered what the “all natural childbirth” hubbub had been about. Would the epidural have been so bad? I know it would have allowed me to relax a little and would have caused less distress to the babies I was laboring for 30 hours to deliver.

Similarly, I think that using meds to treat the symptoms of grief can be useful. Anti-anxiety meds helped me early on, as have anti-depression meds on and off since then. They take the edge off for a while, give you a break from the most exhausting symptoms of grief, letting you gather your strength so you’ll be ready for the next spin on the grief-mobile.

The danger comes when you begin to rely so heavily on external solutions to grief that you never really heal from the inside out, which is the natural way, the way humans have been overcoming grief for as long as humans have existed. Like childbirth.

So what might the effect be of taking grief from a being a normal human experience to a pathological one? More prescriptions for Xanax? Or less?

What it might do is allow a grieving person to be prescribed medications that could help them through the worst of the grief-induced depression, and as the task force making the proposed revisions to these diagnoses argues: “if a person is in distress and seeking help, then treatment ought to be offered — and covered by insurance.”

Grief covered by insurance? Now there’s a concept.


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  1. william January 30, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Abby –
    What I noticed as absent from your discussion was the idea of God – or religion in general – and its role in grief. It is arguably one of the many crutches we use to deal with grief. No doubt including it should elicit all sorts of responses, but in the end I’m reminded of John Lennon’s lyrics: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”. In my view, while it would have been intellectually compelling to raise God as one of our crutches, I’d still end up agreeing with what you wrote about relying on external solutions. God, no more than therapists, support groups or drugs, is going to be the solution to one’s pain. Time and one’s self will accomplish that. But, as you wrote, many need a crutch to navigate the deep waters of grief, and the choice of that crutch is an entirely personal choice.

    1. Abigail Carter February 1, 2012 at 5:44 pm


      You’re right. I didn’t mention God or faith in my post, a strange omission. I suppose you could argue that faith is both an external crutch and part of an internal healing depending on how you define God, whether “he” is external to you or an internal presence.
      Thanks for posting your astute observation.

  2. T January 31, 2012 at 1:50 am

    The Guest House

    This being human is a guest house.

    Every morning a new arrival.

    A joy, a depression, a meanness,

    some momentary awareness comes

    as an unexpected visitor.

    Welcome and entertain them all!

    Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,

    who violently sweep your house

    empty of its furniture,

    still, treat each guest honorably.

    He may be clearing you out

    for some new delight.

    The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

    meet them at the door laughing,

    and invite them in.

    Be grateful for whoever comes,

    because each has been sent

    as a guide from beyond.


  3. BigLittleWolf February 1, 2012 at 5:26 pm

    So much thoughtfulness and wisdom here. Every situation is different. Every individual is different. When will we stop slapping on labels and looking for the quick fix?

    People love, deeply, and in complicated ways. We process loss, similarly, in stories that are our own.

    1. Abigail Carter February 1, 2012 at 5:47 pm

      That is the one true thing about grief, that every person’s experience is different. It is our society’s expectation that grief is a condition that needs “fixing” that is constant, and often hinders the healing even more.
      Thanks BLW for your comment.

  4. Alaina February 1, 2012 at 8:39 pm

    After losing my father to cancer and watching my mother – still untreated – fail to ever truly be herself again, I am so intrigued by this. I completely agree with you that you can’t hide from grief or try to send it packing because it will resurface. Thanks for the awesome post. So glad you are still writing and good luck on the job front. And PS, I was completely comfortable and content in my singleness when I met Seth – so watch out, Lady!

  5. Kristine February 4, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    There are more ways to medicate grief than using prescription drugs. After my husband died from cancer when we were both quite young, I was so traumatized I could not stand to feel any feelings at all. So I self-medicated via becoming a workaholic and exerciseaholic and socialaholic. I changed jobs, moved, and began a new romantic relataionship. Anything to distract me from feeling pain. The problem is, grief eventually caught up with me and laid me flat. It is so much better to ride the waves of grief when they naturally arise. Meds may help one remain functional and not slip into a paralyzing depression, but they should not blunt one’s ability to feel naturally occuring, normal emotions.
    Thank you for the post, Abby.

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