Grief can come in many forms. One can feel it in different ways. It may feel like chest weight or like the crippling weight of the whole body, as tiredness one cannot get rid of. It can feel like the sense of emptiness, of the hole inside one’s belly or chest, a sense of all-encompassing lack. It may feel like the heart that throbs for no reason. It can feel like utter disorientation.
I once read that someone described it as a thousand bats sitting on someone’s chest. This felt like a great description of the experience of profound grief.
Within the current mental health paradigm, profound grief is often shoved into the universal category of depression and treated as a malfunction according to the biomedical model. This may be partly due to the simplification of things in an attempt to manage them.
This paradigm does not to a sufficient degree understand the value of grief, nor the lessons it may provide. It is important, however, that we do not lose sight of these lessons, precisely because of the wisdom they may give us.
Profound grief usually includes losing something we value. It does not have to be an objective loss in the sense of the loss of a friend or a loved one, though it can be and often is triggered by that kind of loss. It can, however, also be an experience of loss of some value we hold dear—for example, dignity or freedom. It can be the loss of the social environment or a job we have cherished, or the way of living we were used to.
Profound grief can often surface after years of felt cumulative injustice. Like other emotions, it can be located within the imbalance in the power relations of the system someone has been living in for years and/or their inability to resolve the tension within that system. The structures we live in might be so imbalanced concerning power that it might be hard for us to change those relations. This kind of social context might also result in grief.
Once grief arises in this grave form, it is however often treated according to the biomedical model. The reasons for this are multifaceted. Sometimes the grief is so big and the person’s suffering so strong that medicines are seen as the only resort that can help quickly put out the pain.
Due to systemic conditions, the current biomedical paradigm puts a focus on this kind of approach and on balancing the chemistry in the brain. In doing so, it gives insufficient attention to the mutual influence of the biological and the social aspects of human existence. It also ignores that orientedness towards something that might be lost when someone loses something they find valuable and that is necessary to feel meaning in everyday functioning.
There are simultaneously other alternatives and ways of handling emotions that are not explored to a sufficient extent. For example, grief can be explored and interpreted as a process of transformation. One can explore how old values are lost and where they can be found again or replaced with new ones.
This is not to minimize the intensity of the experience of grief, nor to minimize the pain felt from it. Depending on the circumstances, it can be hard to experience. This is, however, to say that there are other possibilities and more constructive approaches to understanding grief and dealing with it, rather than the ones that reduce it to a sole malfunction.
There are approaches to grief that are recovery-based and ones that take into account the lessons inherent in the processes of grief. There is a possibility of dismantling the profoundness of grief into smaller, more manageable parts. These kinds of approaches can make the hardness of the emotion of profound grief more bearable.
Another thing to take into account is the culture of technological rationality within which we have lived since the age of industrialism. This culture, oriented around productivity, which has also brought us a lot of progress, does not deal with emotions. It deals solely with principles of calculability and instrumentality, meaning that it only understands what it can measure or that which can be used to make something else, as in the production line of a profit-oriented economic system.
Grief cannot be measured and cannot be used for something else, so it is not seen as something useful. Furthermore, people experiencing profound grief often seem like they require a standstill. This is not seen as productive in the current system.
Within such a narrative, there is a lack of sufficient understanding that grief can be meaning-making, which is understood by more symbolic approaches such as, for example, existentialism. Grief can be related to the loss of something that someone subjectively finds valuable in one’s life. It can make one pause and stop. It can force the person feeling it to reassess the situation.
It can offer the necessary slowing down of an organism when it can no longer exist in the circumstances in which it finds itself. It might be seen as giving time to the human being for processing, regrouping, and reassessment of the situation.
Grief can warn us of the injustices that happen around us that we chose to ignore. It can point us to the areas within ourselves which hurt and require attention or to the areas where something is needed to mourn. There is value in this process that is not entirely understood by the currently prevailing paradigm. Although the experience of grief can be hard, passing through it can offer invaluable lessons, which suppressing, denying, and numbing grief often do not provide.
The current COVID-19 pandemic can be an invitation to explore grief, among other emotions. In its imposing of social isolation and the threat of the contagion of a potentially fatal disease, it forces us to encounter the limitedness of our human existence—something existentialists have called existential givens. Some of the existential givens we encounter within this pandemic are our bodily existence, our aloneness, the potentiality of our bodily existence to succumb to an illness, and the inevitability of death. Within these encounters, there can be a sense of accompanying grief.
The extent to which we are forced to deal with grief within the COVID-19 pandemic might come as a shock. We are collectively not accustomed to the presence of profound emotions being so central to our experience. The functioning of a society built on measurements and calculability does not provide too many ways of dealing with the emotions that accompany the current pandemic.
We might take this moment to assess this kind of social functioning. Do we want to continue to live in this kind of society that focuses solely on production and profit? This kind of social functioning can be paralyzed when feelings of this magnitude storm back to the centrality of our experience on the collective level.
This is often left to the individuals to handle themselves. This might be seen as an area of social functioning which calls for our attention during this pandemic. It offers a unique opportunity for reassessment of these principles.
On the individual level, we can use this encounter with grief to try and find meaning.
We can use this crisis to face the inevitability of existential givens. It can come as a shock. But it can also help us reflect on what matters to us. Facing our human existential situation can help us reassess the ways we live and want to live, both individually and collectively. It can help us reconsider what is valuable to us and help us to align ourselves more with this.
Facing grief in all its depth is never easy. It can be a hard to process experience. It might require a process of transformation, of shedding of old familiar beliefs, values, and ways. It often requires mourning of those things, which is also a process.
It might require that we build ourselves and our relation to the world anew. This is so on the individual level, but also on the collective, social level, especially now within the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.