What manifested as a stomachache was actually cancer, and in five short months, 7-year-old Kaylee Sullivan was gone. “It’s like you’re a zombie,” said her dad, Mark Sullivan, of the days that followed Kaylee’s death. “You’re just walking around and you can’t believe that this actually happened.”
Whether you’ve lost a loved one to prolonged illness or watched death quickly snatch away a friend or family member, you probably remember those first days of numbness after your loss. The flood of emotion interrupts physical and practical rhythms. The future looks murky with sorrow. Grief descends like a heavy weight over your life.
Slowly and over time, many people begin to experience an almost imperceivable shift from this acute pain. The grief doesn’t get smaller, but their worlds start to expand again. This emergence from the valley of the shadow of death feels like a little resurrection.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work in the same way for everyone.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times published a piece titled “How Long Should It Take to Grieve? Psychiatry Has Come Up With an Answer,” and a strong response surged across the internet. The article addressed a controversial new inclusion into the DSM-5-TR, the diagnostic resource for mental health professionals. After years of discussion, the manual now includes “prolonged grief disorder” as a coded diagnosis for those with intense grief symptoms that significantly impair functioning lasting longer than one year (or longer than six months for children).
Emergence from the valley of the shadow of death feels like a little resurrection. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work in the same way for everyone.
The specific advantages or disadvantages of this new inclusion are debatable. As an advocate for the bereaved, I both trust those who have performed extensive research and also approach their conclusions with measured skepticism because of the possibility of financially motivated influence from pharmaceutical companies.
Nevertheless, I’m convinced we need not fear this new diagnosis, nor should its inclusion make us suspicious of psychotherapy in general. Instead, prolonged grief disorder offers yet another opportunity for the church to speak clear gospel truth and offer abundant gospel hope to hurting hearts.
Grief Isn’t a Mental Illness
Many in the therapeutic community have balked at the inclusion of grief in a manual for mental health professionals. Grief, they say, is a normal part of the human experience. Our culture avoids death and grief. The new designation further stigmatizes bereavement as abnormal behavior, marginalizing hurting people from the communities that could offer support.
Here, the Christian can agree, speaking with truth, love, and care. We understand the deep, ongoing sorrow associated with living in a world marked by sin’s decay, and we can lead the way in releasing the stigma associated with bereavement. Being sorrowful doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Rather, it means you’re living fully human. Believing we’re beautifully created by God, we can embrace grief as a God-given capacity to process loss. However long grief lasts, we can honor it as a way for us to connect with our humanity and with God more deeply.
Grief Is a Full-Body Experience
Turned on its head, the new diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder acknowledges a truth Christians have known since Jesus sweat drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane: grief is a full-body experience. King David knew this too when he complained in Psalm 38:3, “There is no health in my body.”
While many people experience relief from grief’s symptoms over time, there are those for whom grief’s presence becomes chronically and physically oppressive. Losing a loved one isn’t just an intellectual reality or an emotional strain; our bodies experience loss in every cell.
For Christians who embrace an embodied faith, this means acknowledging that a meal train and a prayer are rarely all a grieving person needs to get back on her feet again. With our whole bodies we both rejoice and mourn. Encouraging a brother or sister in Christ may mean assisting with access to therapy, medical care, or medication when needed. If you’ve avoided getting help because insurance wouldn’t pay, the new designation might open a door to care for you.
Grief Changes over Time
“When did you start to feel better after your loss?” I ask bereaved people, and, inevitably, I get a host of different answers. Some start to experience hope after a major milestone like the first anniversary of death. Others feel better when financial matters are laid to rest. Still others tell me, “I still don’t feel better,” an honest acknowledgment that grief lingers long and affects us in different ways over time.
A diagnosis of ‘prolonged’ grief could trick us into thinking that bereavement needs to wrap up in a year or less. Christians know better.
While a diagnosis of “prolonged” grief could trick us into thinking that bereavement needs to wrap up in a year or less, Christians know better. Since Adam and Eve received the fatal news of their rejection from Eden, all creation has groaned in sorrow for the remaking of God’s perfect world. We know what it is to grieve long and strong. Millennia later we still run to the psalms when we need words to express the sorrows that shift but still persist.
In one way or another, we’ll accompany each other through sorrow until Jesus comes again. Grief’s manifestations may change as we grow after loss, but it won’t go away. Only in Jesus’s presence will every tear be wiped from every eye. Released from the need to wrap up our sorrow, the focus changes for Christians. Care in bereavement becomes not “How long does it take?” but “How can I be supportive for as long as it takes?”
Work for All of Us
You might be tempted to think that the new diagnosis of prolonged grief disorder finally puts bereavement where it should be—in the hands of the professionals. But we who follow in Jesus’s footsteps know that another’s sorrow should always prompt our engagement. We are bearers of eternal hope. Grief will always be every Christian’s business.
God has given us the gift of science and the ministry of the church to address the myriad ways we suffer in this life. If anything, prolonged grief disorder should mobilize us to greater service. We can allow this new diagnosis to shine a light on neglected hurting people in our communities. A newly named disorder can invite us to step forward with compassionate care and the promise of the gospel. No cheery answers or fortune cookie aphorisms soothe when faced with the sorrow of death, but committed care and resurrection hope can bring light that shines beyond the darkness of death.