Today, people often turn to psychotherapists or books for advice on how to grieve. In the 19th century, when childhood death became much more common, there was a proliferation of “comfort books” for grieving parents and siblings, who sometimes relied heavily on parents’ assurances that the deceased child was in heaven and to the vicissitudes and temptations of life on Earth.
In her 1838 book, “Letters to Mothers,” Connecticut writer Lydia Sigourney included a chapter on “Loss of Children,” who instructed the grieving mothers: “Then you shall not fall prey to despondency, though loneliness reigns over your home, when you realize that the once-beloved captives have advanced but a little, to those mansions the Savior has prepared for all who love him.”
The idea that beautiful and virtuous children, the angels on earth, were called to heaven early on was, of course, intended as an ointment—and it is likely that many were. But it also put grieving parents in the unfortunate position that grief — rather than joy at their child’s ascension — made them less than pious. The promise of comfort was accompanied by a grief rubric, which, if you couldn’t keep it, could leave you feeling like you weren’t doing it right.
In the public debate on the DSM diagnosis, we hear from those who are shocked by the implicit judgment of people who experience long and debilitating grief, as well as from those who seek help because of their long and debilitating grief. Some argue that powerful and prolonged grief is an appropriate and proportionate response to tragedy. That is true, and always has been.
Others describe being tormented by grief that does not abate, or by regret, self-blame, and doubt to a point where they need more than sympathy to care for themselves and those who depend on them. For them, the hope is that the new DSM diagnosis can make help more accessible.
The 18th-century poet Ann Eliza Bleecker described how she clung to her own grief and wanted no comfort. In the early years of the American Revolution, she and her two young daughters had to flee her home near Albany as British troops approached. Her baby, Abella, died of dysentery during the trip, and Bleecker’s mother and sister later died as well. In her poem “Lines Written in the Retreat From Burgoyne,” she described her grief for Abella as a kind of companion:
The idol of my soul was snatched away;
Her spirit fled and left me hideous clay!
Then – then my soul rejected all enlightenment,
Comfort I didn’t long for, I loved my sorrow
Bleecker returned time and again to the subject of her daughter’s death as the central tragedy of her life, rejecting the resignation and Christian steadfastness expected of her, writes scholar Allison Giffen. Her surviving daughter, Margaretta Faugères, also a writer, noted in an introduction to her mother’s works that the memory of the circumstances leading up to Abella’s death “awakened all her sorrows; and she is naturally of a pensive turn, at spoiled them freely.”
You hear the echoes through the ages, the grief that cannot be healed because the deceased child cannot be retrieved, the grief of the surviving daughter who feels her mother’s lingering grief overshadow her own childhood.