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March 14, 2022 • Brooke Siem

What advice would you give to young people about grief?

Thank you everyone for your support over the past few months. I’ve spent the time in monk-mode, putting the last serious edits into my memoir, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS (Central Recovery Press, June 2022).

The work paid off. Johann Hari, award-winning journalist and author of the international bestseller Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and Unexpected Solutionssaid my book is “a heart-rending and tender memoir that will start conversations we urgently need to have.” Lost Connections is arguably the best book on depression and depression recovery in the world, and I am honored to have Johann endorse my work.

MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS is available for preorder. If you can, please consider ordering from your local independent bookstore. Not only does it support local business, but bestseller lists rank orders from independent bookstores higher than orders from Amazon.

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Ask Brooke: Lessons on Grief

Because so many people reach out to me with questions about depression, antidepressants, and recovery, I decided to make those questions part of my blog repertoire.

If you would like to Ask Brooke a question, you can do so here.

Today’s question is from a reporter at HerCampus who asked:

What advice would you give to a young person about grief?

My father died when I was in high school, so I spent much of my college experience “grieving” his death. I say “grieving” because at that point, I was medicated up to my eyeballs on psychiatric drugs given to me to inhibit the grieving process. The decision to medicate me as a response to grief has had long term consequences on my life (it’s what my book is about), so this is a topic that sits deep in my heart.

There are two key aspects to processing grief, especially as a young person whose mind isn’t fully developed. The first, and arguably most important, is to understand that the response to grief is not necessarily aligned or timed with the trauma itself. 

Hours after my father died, I went to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show and laughed with my friends. The adults around me were perplexed, and I remember feeling like I “shouldn’t” be happy (cue the shame) even though I was happy to be there.

Now, as a 35-year old, I understand their confusion. But as a teenager, I didn’t get what it meant to lose a parent. It was kind of like the first day of calculus. I had a vague notion that it was going to be hard, but because I didn’t understand any of it on the first day of school, the looming difficulty didn’t mean anything to me. It took time for me to understand enough about calculus to even have the vocabulary to describe how difficult it was, just like it took months for me to show any sort of outward grief from losing my father. But by then, I’d been sent to a psychiatrist because I wasn’t “grieving properly.”

What actually happened was that I was in shock from the trauma and slow to release emotion. I wasn’t aware that trauma and emotion can be separated by weeks, months, or years, so everyone (including me) thought I was “doing okay.” When the emotion finally did come out, I blamed it on the circumstance at the time, thinking that because I’d been “doing okay” so far, my emotions were unrelated to grief.

This is tricky because grief is often mistaken for a psychiatric illness, which leads to misdiagnosis and overmedication. Over the years, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has changed its criteria for distinguishing between major depressive disorder and grief. The third edition of the DSM, which governed the psychiatric industry from 1980 to 1994, gave patients one year of bereavement leeway before they could officially be diagnosed with a mental disorder. The fourth edition of the DSM slashed the timeframe down to two months. And the DSM-V, published in 2013, eliminated it entirely. Rather, if you’re not “over” a in a few weeks, you can be officially diagnosed with a mental illness—an unconscionable change, in my opinion.

It’s also important for young people to understand that grieving includes joy. Grief is not necessarily a blanket of blurry darkness in which no levity can get through. It comes in waves, which means there are pockets of time to feel joy. Fully feeling that joy or happiness is just as important as feeling the loss. Joy reminds us that we are alive and that we have something to live for. It honors the person or experience that’s been lost.

Had I known that back when I went to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, I may not have stepped into the shame of experiencing joy during grief. I may not have learned to view the world through a nihilist, depressed lens. I may never have been medicated for a mental illness I don’t know if I ever really had.

What I know for sure is that when I got off all the antidepressants, after 15 years, the grief I’d medicated away for so long was still there. I had to process it, a decade and a half later, which was much more destructive than it would have been had I let it unfold naturally.

Grief will always wait for you. It can be delayed but not avoided. Embrace it when it comes. Process it. Know that by feeling it you are transforming it into light and love.

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After 15 years of depression and antidepressants, my mission is to help people find hope in the name of healing. My memoir on the subject, MAY CAUSE SIDE EFFECTS, publishes on May 10, 2022. Pre-order it on Barnes & Nobles, Amazon, or wherever books are sold. For the most up-to-date announcements, subscribe to my newsletter HAPPINESS IS A SKILL.

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