Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The DSM-5, the most recent version of psychiatry’s diagnostic bible, makes it possible to classify grieving that endures beyond a rather brief span of time as a mental illness.

This pathologizing of grief has ancient roots extending back at least as far as the Stoics, whose stern ascetic morality preached a perfect indifference that eschewed all passionate attachments. The ideal of selfless asceticism was carried forth in early Christianity, showing up dramatically, for example, in the Confessions of the prominent 12th century monk, Saint Bernard, who was wracked with guilt over his grief for his beloved dead brother. His brother, after all, was enjoying eternal happiness in heaven, so Bernard could only feel his grieving his loss as a manifestation of a wicked selfishness on his own part.

The pathologizing of grief was continued by the philosopher Rene Descartes, usually considered to be the initiator of the Enlightenment and Modernity. In letters to Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia and Constantijn Huygens, he warned that sadness and grief could cause serious physical illnesses, and he recommended a form of mental discipline—reminiscent of both the Stoics and contemporary cognitive-behavior therapies—in which the imagination was to be directed away from the sources of emotional pain and toward objects that could furnish contentment and joy.

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Original posting by Psychology Today

About Robert D. Stolorow

Robert D. Stolorow, Ph.D., Ph.D. is a Founding Faculty Member at the Institute of Contemporary Psychoanalysis, Los Angeles, and at the Institute for the Psychoanalytic Study of Subjectivity, New York City. He is the author of World, Affectivity, Trauma: Heidegger and Post-Cartesian Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2011) and Trauma and Human Existence: Autobiographical, Psychoanalytic, and Philosophical Reflections (Routledge, 2007) and coauthor of eight other books. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Harvard University in 1970 and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Riverside in 2007.