Today, people often look to psychotherapists or books for advice on how to grieve. In the 19th century, when childhood death was much more common, there was a proliferation of “comfort books” for grieving parents and siblings, which sometimes relied heavily on assuring parents that the deceased child was in heaven and had escaped the vicissitudes and temptations of life on earth.
In her 1838 book, “Letters to Mothers,” the Connecticut writer Lydia Sigourney included a chapter on “Loss of Children,” which instructed the grieving mothers: “You will not then, become a prey to despondence, though loneliness broods over your dwelling, when you realize that its once cherished inmates have but gone a little in advance, to those mansions which the Saviour hath prepared for all who love him.”
The idea that beautiful and virtuous children, the angels on earth, were called early up to heaven, was meant to be a salve, of course — and it’s likely that it was for many. But it also placed grieving parents in the unfortunate position of feeling that sorrow — instead of joy at their child’s ascension — made them less than pious. The promise of comfort carried with it a rubric for grief, which, if you couldn’t abide by it, might leave you feeling that you weren’t doing it right.
In the public debate about the D.S.M. diagnosis, we hear from those who are horrified by the implied judgment of people who experience long and debilitating grief, and also from those seeking help because of their long and debilitating grief. Some argue that powerful and lengthy grief is an appropriate and proportional response to tragedy. That is true, and always has been.
Others describe being tortured by grief that does not abate, or by regrets, self-blame and second-guessing to a point where they need something more than sympathy in order to take care of themselves and the people who depend upon them. For them the hope is that the new D.S.M. diagnosis could make help more accessible.
The 18th-century poet Ann Eliza Bleecker described clinging to her own grief, not wishing for comfort. In the early years of the American Revolution, she had to flee her home near Albany with her two young daughters because British troops were approaching. Her baby, Abella, died of dysentery during the journey, and later, Bleecker’s mother and sister 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 torn away;
Her spirit fled and left me ghastly clay!
Then — then my soul rejected all relief,
Comfort I wish’d not for, I lov’d my grief
Bleecker returned to the topic of her daughter’s death again and again as the central tragedy of her life, rejecting the resignation and Christian fortitude that was expected of her, the scholar Allison Giffen writes. Her surviving daughter, Margaretta Faugères, also a writer, commented in an introduction to her mother’s works that being reminded of the circumstances that led to Abella’s death “never failed to awaken all her sorrows; and she being naturally of a pensive turn of mind, too freely indulged them.”
You can hear the echoes across the centuries, the grief that cannot be healed because the departed child cannot be retrieved, the sorrow of the surviving daughter who feels that her mother’s persistent grief overshadowed her own childhood.