Top menu navigation

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Status: It's Complicated

This weekend, the New York Times posted this fascinating story on The New Old Age blog.

The piece, titled "A Grief So Deep It Won't Die," by Paula Span, deals with the concept of "complicated grief," a state characterized by years of sadness after a loss, and was recently given something of a footnote in the latest DSM.

It struck me this week, a difficult one on the heels of several other difficult ones. I had a check up with my oncologist, and since I rated my distress on the distress-thermometer as a 6, that meant we had to talk about it. She asked if I wanted to see the hospital psychiatrist again.

"I'm not depressed," I said to her. "I'm sad."

"Sadness is depression," she said.

It was an off-the-cuff remark, I know she doesn't truly equate sadness with depression, but it was so illustrative of the cancer patient experience. The whole, "You're not over it yet? There's something wrong with you" - thing. But it's also, "Hey, you've been through something really shitty, and I want to protect you from that the only way I know how." But it's already happened. It always will have happened.

She wants to help -- she doesn't want me to be sad -- but the relief isn't one that I want. After a rough few months on Effexor last fall, I'm really not eager to go on an antidepressant again.

Nearly seven years ago, I cared for Matt through a life-threatening illness, tending his surgical wounds, watched deeply poisonous substances drip into his blood, sat in the waiting room while he was shot with radiation beams. In the last three years, that same series of things happened to me.

Ad so it feels decidedly unlike a disorder for me to cry, feel an ache, to need time alone to lick those many wounds. Even though it's three years later.

(I know that's a slippery slope, and that depression does know how to cloak itself in the "things are terrible, it's a lie to feel anything other than misery." I know, and I am watching.)

But I have so often felt frustrated how little others will let me be sad.

Example: We put in an offer on a perfectly imperfect little house in the mountains a few weeks ago. I moved in in my mind the moment I saw it. I imagined planting wisteria (and once you mentally plant wisteria it's all over). There turned out to be multiple bids, and though ours was the highest, we still didn't get it.

And when I expressed disappointment, I was repeatedly hushed and clucked at: "That wasn't the right one," and "The house you're meant to have is out there." Chin up, and all that. Please, I wanted to say. Just let me feel what I'm feeling. Just let me.

I'm ashamed it admit that to avoid this in daily life I hide behind "I'm fine." To avoid my feelings being negated by others, I negate them myself. That same old song and dance.

Matt keeps trying to buy me ice cream and mango juice. Pancho licks my face when I cry. But know that I have to feel it all.* Not because pain is somehow instructive or "makes you stronger," (ugh) or a better person. Pain does none of those things. I have to feel it because it's fucking true.

And all of that is not to say leave me alone. It's the opposite in fact. It's, I need you now. Let's have a hug or smile or just hold me in your heart with good intention. Let's have an I hear you girl. Let's all talk to someone. Someones. Let's all get the help we need. Let's share all our complicated grief.

I think all grief is complicated, by the way.

*But only if it is (really) real. Sadness can become depression. I'm lucky, in that I generally know by the quality of my thoughts what sort they are. When I feel the little beginnings of the rip tide start to tug, I take notice. Am I realy an awful, selfish person, or did I just make a mistake?


  1. It's eight years later for me, and I'm not a 6 anymore, but sometimes even being a 3 still makes me cry. Love this post.