Is Emotional Pain Necessary?

Is Emotional Pain Necessary?

This is the question posed by today’s NPR piece, which talks about a recent change in the American Psychiatric Association’s new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM. The proposal is to remove the “bereavement exclusion” from the guidelines for diagnosing major depression. In other words, if one’s grief is severe and lasts too long, it should be treated like depression. How long is too long? In the words of the article:

“ . . . if symptoms like these [acute upset, loss of sleep, appetite, energy and concentration] persist for more than two weeks, the bereaved person will be considered to have a mental disorder: major depression. And treatment, either therapy or medication, is recommended.”


Are we, as a culture, so afraid of feeling the depths of our emotion that we would choose to medicate the pain of grief as soon as two weeks out from a major loss? It seems ludicrous to me.

After losing my son six years ago, my journey of grief (which I chronicle in my award-winning book The Deep Water Leaf Society) took at least TWO YEARS and in many ways continues even today. Were there days that I would have liked to take a pill and make the pain stop? Yes. And if I had, would I have learned and experienced all that I did and healed so completely? I think not. For me expressive arts, journaling and dreamwork allowed me to honor my pain, learn from it and heal by moving headlong into my pain, not running away from it.

It is the conscious journey through our grief that creates healing. In my opinion, if you stuff it down, ignore it, drown it in alcohol or happy it up with Prozac you will miss the meaning, the lessons, the growth that come from being real about how it feels. I learned more about myself and let go of more useless baggage during those two years of healing than I had in my entire life up to that point. I am a better person because of my loss and because of the very real pain it caused. Had I numbed the pain with Prozac, I know my loss would not have created the same level of positive personal transformation.

I am reminded of Kirk in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. When the mysterious mystic Syvok wants to take away everyone’s pain, Kirk is the only hold-out while everyone else is all silly with nirvanic joy. “Damn it, Bones,” says Kirk, “you’re a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can’t be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They’re the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don’t want my pain taken away! I need my pain!”

I’m with Kirk on this one.

It’s not that we should choose to live in the depths of that pain permanently. And certainly if someone becomes suicidal or is completely unable to function for long periods of time there may be some call for intervention. But to put an arbitrary timeframe on how long it should take to process the pain of grief is ridiculous.

TWO WEEKS?!!! I don’t think it’s we grievers who have a mental disorder. I think the authors of the DSM should have their own heads examined!

3 thoughts on “Is Emotional Pain Necessary?

  • August 3, 2010 at 2:20 PM

    I listened to the NPR program also and was stunned that a professional would suggest that two weeks was a sufficient time for grieving, or mourning a loved one. I, too, have had several losses in my life and believe there should not be a time table on grieving. The “two week” bereavement exclusion appears ridiculous. But it’s easier for the professionals to pass out a pill than to confront the raw emotions of the bereaved.

  • August 10, 2010 at 8:06 PM

    I just found your blog, and want to say I love your art.

    And I agree with your two weeks is insane for a significant loss. Two weeks sounds fine if it’s friend you barely knew. Two years sounds quite reasonable for an immediate family member, especially if they were taken before their time.

  • December 3, 2012 at 6:11 PM

    Of course the shrinks who write the DSM give you this ridiculous 2-week deadline. They would like you in their office after 2 weeks so they can start feeding you expensive (and toxic!) drugs, and collecting big bucks. They want people to be dependent on them!


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