Monday, January 3, 2011

Good grief. Monday, January 3, 2010.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” –Kahlil Gibran

My dear friend Abrihet lost her beloved mother at the end of September. I wrote about Mama’s unexpected death and about Abrihet, who is the most amazing woman I have ever known. Do I worship the ground on which Abrihet walks? Well, almost. At the very least I see her as one of the strongest, most capable people I’ve ever had the good fortune to have as a friend.

It’s been a hard few months of Abrihet. Her mother lived with the family, and the two were like best friends, so the loss of Mama in Abrihet’s daily life is palatable for her. The first few weeks after Mama’s untimely passing was a study in cultural differences for me. Abrihet and many of her friends are from Africa, where it is customary to put a very public face on one’s sorrow.

As one website on African traditions put it, “Females of the family of the deceased and their friends may undergo mournful lamentations. In some instances they work their feelings up to an ostentatious, frenzy-like degree of sorrow.” One of only a very few Caucasian Americans at the memorial, I witnessed that kind of emotion, and as Abrihet wailed in her native language, my heart was ripped open. I could barely stand it.

Still, it made sense to me – in a way, more sense than our silent and restricted ways of grieving in America. Rather than stuffing their grief, as so many of us do, the Africans let it all out; the bereaved are encouraged to scream and cry loudly to express their sorrow. Americans, in contrast, tend to expect the bereaved to mourn silently and get back to the business of living as soon as possible.

But Abrihet straddles two worlds. She’s lived in the US since she became an adult, and is as “Americanized” as can be. Abrihet is a medical researcher and an emergency room RN. She’s raising four children, and running a non-profit organization raising aid for Africa. Life in America is complex and busy, and it doesn’t allow for mourning time.

For a few weeks after Mama’s death, Abrihet looked positively ashen. Already tiny, she had lost weight, and she had dark circles under her eyes. She could not smile or laugh. As time went on, though, Abrihet began to return to her usual self. Her color returned, she looked less emaciated. Her face began to soften, and eventually I saw her beautiful smile again. Make no mistake: she was a different Abrihet, an Abrihet without Mama. She would never be “the same.” But I began to recognize my dear friend again.

Over the weekend, I participated in a fundraising event for Abrihet’s non-profit organization. Abrihet’s familiar smile and mannerisms were there. But as I was getting ready to leave, she pulled me into another room. She wasn’t doing okay, she confided. She was still crying a lot; she was still having problems sleeping. Mama’s loss was constantly on her mind. A friend of hers had suggested she try antidepressant medication. What did I think…?

Abrihet wasn’t asking a medical question; she’s a medical professional and knows more than I do. She was asking a spiritual question, a moral question, a social question: Is it wrong for me to still be grieving? Is there something wrong with me?
Some people here on FB seem to believe that because I take medication, I believe there’s a pill for every ill.

Let me say once again for the record that I do not believe this is so. I’ve written about the difference between sadness and clinical depression. I’m not in favor of drugging small children or feeding 20 different meds to grandpa. And while I’m no doctor, when it comes to Abrihet, I see bereavement and not clinical depression. They are different things.

In Africa, when someone dies, the family stays together in a room for a week or two and all activity stops. In the United States, we get two “bereavement days” off work if we are lucky. In Africa, death is seen as an entry to another life. In the United States, despite the fact that many people consider it a “Christian” nation, the spirituality of death has been sanitized away. We’re encouraged here to get past the business of death as quickly as possible.

Abrihet is trapped between these two worlds. And while she knows that she cries in private, I know that in public her “self” is on its way back. I don’t see how antidepressants could do anything to help her that her brain and body are not doing naturally already. She needs to be patient with herself as she goes through this transition.

I told Abrihet to speak to her physician about the antidepressants. It’s my sincere hope that he suggests bereavement therapy instead of prescribing medication. Painful as it is, Abrihet is experiencing a good grief, and someday, she’ll be on the other side.

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