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Dealing with grief and tragedy

BY DR. DAVID LIPSCHITZ Modified: December 31, 2012 at 9:48 am •  Published: December 31, 2012

The senseless murder of 26 people, 20 of them children between age 6 and 7, deeply wounded our nation, our leaders and us.

The New Year is a time when we look toward the future, to new beginnings, a clean slate and resolves to make this a better year than the last. So writing about grief is the last topic I would prefer to cover now. But sadly we cannot choose the time when tragedy strikes our nation or ourselves.

Grief has been in the news lately as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is about to be released. Ten thousand psychiatrists who met in groups beginning in January 2010 developed the manual. Every mental disease is characterized and the criteria needed to make a diagnosis documented.

Most controversial is the recommendation by a group of psychiatrists who suggest that grief should be labeled a disease after as little as 2 weeks. This condition is referred to as "abnormal grief," "prolonged grief disorder," "traumatic grief" or, most frequently, "complicated grief."

Virtually every grieving person experiences profound sorrow and sadness, disbelief, loneliness, anger, insomnia, inability to concentrate and an unwillingness to engage in normal conversation. Grief may express itself through crying and wailing or complete silence and withdrawal.

The key question is: how quickly should a mourner no longer grieve? Labeling grief as an illness after as little as two weeks may lead to inappropriate and excessive use of antidepressants (that are not without side effects) and the recommendation for grief counseling that has been shown to be of little value in the healing process except for those with mental disease.

The late Elizabeth Kubler Ross was the first to describe characteristics of profound grief. First comes denial (this cannot be happening to me), then anger (we must blame someone, ourselves, God). Next is bargaining (if only things get better, I promise that I will do something in return), then depression (profoundly glum, do not want to be involved in life, and even have thoughts of suicide) and finally acceptance (understand that death is part of the circle of life and, despite the loss, become peaceful and able to function fully in the community).

With acceptance comes gradual recovery.

Death, like birth, weddings, celebration or illness, is a natural part of life. But whenever death comes, it is always a traumatic and life-changing experience for those left behind.

Because grief is natural, there has been a backlash against the new recommendation with many experts believing that a much longer time (6 to 12 months or more) is needed before continued grief becomes abnormal in which case symptoms are similar to any chronic depressive disorder.

So how should we deal with grief or support a grieving person? Much of the advice given is often incorrect. Becoming distracted, going back to work and ignoring the pain will not necessarily make grieving go away more quickly.

Pretending nothing has happened or being "strong" and unemotional will not help. Feeling very sad, vulnerable and lost are natural and sharing these intimate feelings with those who love you will help the healing process.

Grief is difficult to watch and a grieving person is particularly difficult to support. Many of us wish to avoid thinking about death at all costs, find it uncomfortable to be around those who are mourning, and tend to stay away — a mistake. Supporting a person in mourning does not mean continuing with life as normal or reassuring that all will be better soon.

A true friend will simply be there and do nothing but offer support, love and kindness. Let people deal with grief in their own unique way. Be particular supportive in the weeks and months following a tragedy, when everyone else has gone home, life has returned to normal, when the mourner is alone and not coping.

As our hearts and thoughts reach out to those most affected by these senseless killings, we should all understand that every life is touched by tragedy be it a life threatening illness or the death of a loved one. Having insights into grieving will help make the process understandable and promote eventual healing.

Dr. David Lipschitz is the author of the books "Breaking the Rules of Aging" and "Dr. David's First Health Book of More Not Less." To find out more about Dr. David Lipschitz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at More information is available at



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