O’Rourke On Grief

Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke has written “The Long Goodbye”, a multi-part essay on grief, following the death of her mother. It’s an extraordinary, heartfelt piece. Of course, Joan Didion and “The Year of Magical Thinking” are referred to:

The clinical literature on grief is extensive. Much of it reinforces what even the newish mourner has already begun to realize: Grief isn’t rational; it isn’t linear; it is experienced in waves. Joan Didion talks about this in The Year of Magical Thinking, her remarkable memoir about losing her husband while her daughter was ill: “[V]irtually everyone who has ever experienced grief mentions this phenomenon of waves,” she writes. She quotes a 1944 description by Michael Lindemann, then chief of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. He defines grief as:

sensations of somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from twenty minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing, and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power, and an intensive subjective distress described as tension or mental pain.

Intensive subjective distress. Yes, exactly: That was the objective description I was looking for. The experience is, as Lindemann notes, brutally physiological: It literally takes your breath away. This is also what makes grief so hard to communicate to anyone who hasn’t experienced it.

Read the rest…


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