As we learn to have compassion for ourselves, the circle of compassion for others -- what and whom we can work with, and how -- becomes wider.
Pema Chödrön
When Things Fall Apart

Some people may question if grief is a healthy response to loss, even if it is natural. I think there are three reasons for this concern. First, both grief and an illness make it harder to function, at least temporarily. Second, we may experience grief reactions we have never encountered before and think something is drastically wrong with us. We must be sick for this to be happening to us. Third, we tend to use words to describe grief that we associate with an illness, words such as “heal,” “symptoms,” and “recover.” (For this reason I prefer to use words like “manifestations” or “expressions” of grief rather than disease-related words.) However, grief is not a disease; it is a “dis-ease.” We are no longer “at ease” and are experiencing a disruption in the stability of our normal day-to-day lives. There is no sick condition in the mind or the body directly caused by bacteria, viruses, physiological problems, etc. like there is with a disease. Grief is a healthy reaction to a loss.

Many times people seem to think grief and depression go hand in hand. While they have similarities and do overlap, grief is the natural, healthy reaction to a loss and depression is a mental disorder or disease. Common manifestations of grief that are similar to depression include a change in eating or sleeping habits, a desire to withdraw from the world, a feeling of carrying a heavy weight and being “pressed down,” sadness, loneliness, etc. However, there are also significant differences between grief and depression. Normal grief does not include the loss of self-esteem that usually occurs with depression. As Freud noted, in grief, the world looks bleak, poor, and empty whereas in depression the person feels poor and empty. Grief and clinical depression are two different situations and what helps one doesn’t necessarily help the other. For more information, see Grief vs. Depression.

 Another characterization that some people use to describe grief is that it is abnormal. Today in this country, people are living longer than they ever have. As a result, most of us do not personally encounter bereavement and grief often. Although our culture is immersed in death as shown on television, in the news, in movies, in videogames, etc., it does not impact us on a frequent, individual basis. If grief is not a ordinary experience of every day life, then some people may consider it to be “abnormal.” However, if expressing love for someone is “normal,” why isn’t expressing the pain and suffering over the loss of that loved one also “normal?” It is!

To sum it up, the grief reactions we experience when we are bereaved are natural, healthy, and normal reactions to the loss of someone dear to us. Gerald May wrote in Shalem News that, “Grief is neither a disorder nor a healing process; it is sign of health itself, a whole and natural gesture of love. Nor must we see grief as a step towards something better. No matter how much it hurts – and it may be the greatest pain in life – grief can be an end in itself, a pure expression of love.”