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“I became insane with long intervals of horrible sanity.”

Quote from Edgar Allen Poe, Jan 4, 1848, on the illness and

eventual death of his wife

Bob Baugher, Ph.D.

Can you identify with the above quote? If so, then you have experienced the death of a loved one. It matters not who it was. Grief is grief. Years ago, I was asked by the bereaved parents’ group of Tacoma Compassionate Friends to give a talk on the following topic: What is the Difference between Going Crazy and Being Bereaved? At the time I was teaching a college course in Abnormal Psychology in which we examined the symptoms, causes and treatments for mental disorders. I had learned a great deal from people coping with grief, the most important was: being bereaved feels like you are going crazy. When I first got the invitation to speak to the Tacoma group, I briefly had this fantasy that I would stand in front of the group and say, “Thank you for inviting me to discuss the difference between going crazy and being bereaved. The answer is: There is no difference. Thank you for having me.” Of course I wouldn’t say that. However, in a way you know it’s true.

That night, as I was driving to the Tacoma group, a song came on the radio by Don McLean: Stary, Stary Night. One of the phrases in the song is: “You suffer for your sanity.” At that moment, it dawned on me that the group of bereaved parents I was on my way to meet was doing exactly that: Suffering for their sanity, something Poe experienced more than 100 years ago. As I listened to the words of the song, I also realized that, not more than ten miles from where this meeting was being held was Western State Hospital—a hospital for folks who were seriously mentally ill. Any of these parents could have ended up there by claiming that their child was not dead. Instead, they were sitting in a room clearly suffering for their sanity. Like many bereaved people, you might have lapsed into brief periods of insanity when you said, “My daughter is at a friend’s house.” Or “My wife is at work.” Or “My brother is at school. He’ll be walking in the door any moment.” You said these insane words to give your brain a brief respite from the horrible pain. And, then, in an instant, you were back to suffering the dreadful agony of sanity.

Is this crazy behavior? Not at all. It is what a sane person does. Ask around and you’ll see you are not alone in attempting to escape from this horrible reality. You are living a nightmare from which you keep hoping you will awaken. The people around you keep hoping that the “old you” will return. It won’t. How could it? You are a different person who is going through an experience that would make anyone crazy. You have found that the world out there does not understand your craziness. How could they? As you likely know, your job is to find other people who are experiencing a similar craziness. If you’ve not found these people, do whatever you can to discover them and, eventually, to look into their eyes. When you share your story and listen to theirs, you will find validation in your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Many bereaved people have said to me, “When I found these people, it literally saved my life.” So, take your crazy grief and find these people. They are out there. And, when you do find them, thank them for sharing their gifts of caring with you. And you will find that one of these gifts is what most all bereaved people experience: insanity.

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