There is a wonderful article in the New York Times today about how the bereaved try to “get grief right”, while it’s actually our culture – including, in many cases, the culture of our helping professions – that’s gotten it wrong.

Very gently, using simple, nonclinical words, I suggested to Mary that there was nothing wrong with her. She was not depressed or stuck or wrong. She was just very sad, consumed by sorrow, but not because she was grieving incorrectly. The depth of her sadness was simply a measure of the love she had for her daughter.

A transformation occurred when she heard this. She continued to weep but the muscles in her face relaxed. I watched as months of pent-up emotions were released.

I’ve been lucky to witness a similar, visible physical transformation time and again when talking to patients who are coping with a whole range of losses and traumas (from normal aging to more profound loss of physical safety and function, from job changes to death of a family member). Acknowledgement of the loss helps. Acceptance of the person helps. Sharing permission to engage in the consuming work of grief (fully, and each in their own manner and on their own timeline) helps.

Grief is hard work, and can only be put off at significant physiological cost. Grief is a difficult medicine to take, but grief is its own cure. Medical professionals can facilitate grief and help to keep the grieving safe, with pills and various programs. But encouraging the grieving to accept and safely engage with their sorrow (if and when their life situation and overall status allows it, and without pushing any timeline or agenda), may be the most important thing we can do.

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