By Stacy Torres
With the recent one-year anniversary of my father’s death from lung cancer, I was afraid that other people’s patience with my grief was about to expire. Recently, “prolonged grief disorder” was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) which defines “long” as in adults lasting at least a year added to my fear.
Is my intense sadness a mental illness or just being human? Instead of pathologizing ten percent of grieving people who may end up in “long grief”, what if we took a slower grieving approach instead?
Despite the growing social and cultural pressure to deal with it, I recognize the value of “slow” mourning. A year later, I just feel comfortable, breaking in grief like a favorite pair of shoes. Slow Grief helps me get over the ongoing shock of my father’s disappearance from the physical world and deal with the chronic heartache of the ongoing pandemic, the devastating war in Ukraine, and mass shootings in our schools, malls, and workplaces.
One symptom Checklist for protracted grief disorder involves leaving the deceased person’s belongings intact. In Dad’s Room 2021 a frozen wall calendar hangs in May. “His” medicines are kept on a small table. I haven’t started sorting through his things yet, but I’ve thrown some things away, like the chair he died in, stained with the fluids of his last days. Before tossing, I photograph each item, down to its last ivory soap wrapper. My bereavement counselor soothed the early self-consciousness of mourning my snail. I do not intend to preserve these dying days in amber, but I fear that the daily treadmill of life hastens oblivion.
Many days I cry the random tears familiar to a mourner. Recent triggers include building demolition one block from my apartment in New York. As winches tore at the earth, tearing away at the edges of the barely formed scales of grief, sadness clouded me as workers excavated the pit where the nondescript two-story limestone affair had stood since the 1930s.
For an ordinary passer-by, this is a unique sight in a city where buildings are constantly collapsing. But the void left in this once-taken-for-granted streetscape serves as a constant, physical reminder of my dead parents. Earlier in my life, John Q. Aymar Building there was Lamston’s Five and Ten, where my mother bought me coloring books and paper dolls. After retirement, my father picked up his medications at CVS Pharmacy and frequented the Boston Market.
My sister and I sat with Dad’s body in the house for hours after he died, a slow process of grieving. Wrapped in a white shirt and hospital blankets, he looked like a Greek statue. I admired the timeless beauty in its dead state, reminding me of the peaceful,beautiful death” urges James Joyce Dublinersfeeling grateful for his and our relatively gentle entry into the “after.”
The more I process my loss, the more I question whether I want to go back to “normal functioning,” whatever that is.
The last terrible year had thrown me into a hopeless slump, but I allowed myself to feel the full force of grief. I know I lost my mother when I was a teenager, that I can’t get over it. This time I’m stretching myself, training for a lifelong marathon before sprinting. Adjusting to the absence of a loved one requires enormous cognitive energy. Twenty-five years after my mother’s death, I am often struck by the permanence of death; I still sometimes wake up crying in disbelief. Now I’m learning new ways of doing things, revamping my routine to accommodate the tears that end my days, much like flossing my teeth.
Criteria Prolonged grief disorder includes “identity disturbance (eg, feeling like part of yourself has died),” which makes me wonder how it is possible not to feel such seismic shifts when we lose those we love dearly. I was my father’s primary caregiver for 17 years. Despite the stress and fatigue, I miss taking care of him. When my dad’s disconnected cell phone number fades from my memory and stings like a paper cut through my heart, when I remember the fewer digits I once dialed each day, I appreciate the complex pain of these role changes and transitions.
The gifts of grief take time to reveal themselves. Every day is like taking a centimeter away from an impressionist painting. Some things disappear, other pains deepen into exquisite detail as the extent of my loss becomes clearer. Dad’s death opened something deep inside me and made me reevaluate my middle age. As I absorb the aftershocks of this earthquake, I’m learning that our fast food, fast, fast food culture will not validate my grief. Only I can shamelessly give myself the right to pause, rest, step back. I’m getting my strength back, and I’m also trying to resist the toxic pressure to perform. I felt like a secret slacker at work, but maybe I’m just human.
Diagnostic guidelines for chronic grief disorder specify, “the duration of personal loss exceeds expected social, cultural, or religious norms.” But outdated norms do little to reflect the accumulated grief that many of us carry. In the face of endless domestic and global carnage, isn’t prolonged mourning the most appropriate response? For the past two years, in the classes I have taught, my students and I have made space for grief over the pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, and the recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde. We cannot continue business as usual. Prolonged grief is normal these days.
I want everyone who is suffering to get the care they need. I received free bereavement counseling through my father’s Medicare. benefits, the support that should be given to all mourners. But I also reserve the right to grieve without shame, stigma, or diagnosis. I am proud to be a sensitive, emotional person who can hardly understand life without a loved one. I’ll take my slow lane for now. I often feel as if I live behind an invisible glass that separates me from others. But I’m never really alone.
Instead of trying to resist or move past it, I make friends with my grief—I welcome it into my room, I sit quietly with it. We walk together. A different memory awaits around every corner of the city. Here, my dad is picking me up from elementary school, holding my hand. There I am, a grown man, accompanying him to his last visit to the oncologist, holding his hand. Grief is not alien, my enemy, or an obstacle to productivity. It’s a part of me. And we will spend a lot of time together.
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