For even the most casual readers of the dailies, it’s impossible to miss the uptick in opinion writing about grief. Like a snowball, the icy smack of bereavement has hit the nation hard. Mourners are speaking up and out.

It may be that the COVID-19 pandemic started the ball rolling, but older epidemics like cancer, Parkinson’s and heart disease continued throughout that scourge to sucker punch families, so that grief’s cascading levels of pain are perhaps now simply too heavy for even our modern culture of denial to deny. We may lack the elaborate mourning rituals of the nineteenth century, but clearly grief is having something of a public comeback.

Is this a good thing?

When my great grandfather died, our doors were festooned with black wreaths. Knock gently, they seemed to say. Tread quietly. Cloaked in the rituals of Victorian America, my great grandmother wove black combs into her thin hair, wore black all day and night. She gave me a tiny armband to wear. Her heart bled in a sphere of shared ritual and commemoration. Then, when the year of Pops death ended, all signs of death were removed. Mourning had officially broken.


For many of her generation, relief came only when separation ended: in heaven, perhaps. Or, who knows? Even before then.


When his beloved five-year old son “Pickie” (Arthur Young Greeley) died in 1849, the newspaper editor and magnate Horace Greeley joined his wife in calling upon the famous spiritualists Kate and Margaret Fox, hoping to hear once again the voice of their beloved child. Pickie was their third child to die amidst the great waves of disease that swept through whole families and communities. In response to this wave, spiritualism soared. The Foxes prospered and grew famous. Perhaps, people did not die; perhaps they simply pass into another world. My great grandmother believed this. “Pops,” she told me, “passed away.”

While spiritualism has retreated from its nineteenth century heights, people still pass away and mourning continues to occupy a limited time frame. Last year, in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the American Psychiatric Association concretized that popular belief: anyone still grieving one year after experiencing a loss is suffering a “prolonged” mental disorder.

I long to ask my partner Nancy what she might think of this for, during her work as a lesbian psychotherapist for 40 years, she was deeply skeptical of the manual. But Nancy died seven years ago. And I grieve every day.

Like the Greeleys did, I ache to hear her voice. And how bitterly ironic, she might point out, that the same diagnostic tool that proclaimed our love for each other pathological now declares my grief aberrant.

All grieving is a form of temporary madness. How could it be otherwise? You are not yourself. How could you be? The poet Forrest Gander asks: “Who was ever only themselves?”

But prolonged grief is hardly unusual or deviant. It is the most normal result of a deeply felt love. Clearly, it reorders you as you come to see yourself outside and beyond the gaze of your lover’s eyes. But you never forget that look. You do not go blindly ahead. You hold on to what she saw and let that guide you. You are not mentally disordered. You are normal. You are grieving. And that’s OK.

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