Grieving Mother Held Against Her Will in Psychiatric Ward

I read an article this morning about a judge who ordered release of a grieving mother, Christina Schumacher, who was held against her will for more than five weeks in a psychiatric ward. When she separated from her husband last year, Ms. Schumacher made a comment to her sister “that she would kill herself if anything happened to her two children.”* The day after her husband killed their son and then hanged himself, the grieving mother’s doctor decided that she “needed to admit herself or be taken into custody.”*

Other people, however, thought differently. Vermont Superior Court Judge Kevin Griffin ruled that, “The court did not find, by clear and convincing evidence, that Respondent was a person in need of treatment at the time of admission or application, nor a patient in need of further treatment at the time of the hearing.”* Ms. Schumacher, said, “I am not ill; I am simply a mother who is grieving the tragic loss of her young son…No mother should ever have to experience this loss.”*

Who has the right to decide whether grieving parents need psychiatric help and/or whether their grief needs medicalizing? When is it appropriate for someone else to decide when grief is too overwhelming or going on too long for a bereaved parent? What non-bereaved parent hasn’t thought, “I don’t know if I could go on living if something should happen to my children”? Should that person’s child die, are his or her previous statements enough to warrant involuntary commitment to a psychiatric ward? If a bereaved parent mentions suicidal type of thoughts while deeply grieving the loss of a child, is that enough for such drastic action as involuntary commitment to a psychiatric ward? What bereaved parent hasn’t struggled with trying to find a reason to go on living when a child has died? (By the way, having suicidal thoughts is not totally uncommon for bereaved parents. Not that those thoughts are necessary acted upon, but they are sometimes thought.) What are the warning flags that a bereaved parent needs help to deal with grief? When is appropriate to pathologize grief? What is “normal” grief? When should grief be considered “abnormal”?

I think these are questions that have been brought to the forefront in the discussion of the inclusion of complicated grief into the DSM-5. I also think that because these questions – and many more – are so difficult to definitively answer is why complicated grief was not included in the DSM-5, but rather indicated for further study and research.

I have no doubt that there are many researchers on the subject of grief and doctors who have the best intentions of helping those who grieve and those who struggle with prolonged or complicated grief. I applaud them for their research and for efforts to deal with this difficult subject. I also think the situation of Ms. Schumacher should also be a cautionary tale for misdirected and over-zealousness in pathologizing grief.

Lately, I have been doing some reading and research on the topic of complicated grief. My main concern with adding complicated grief to the DSM-5 and pathologizing grief is that for every doctor who uses due caution in determining whether or not grief intervention is necessary, there are those who may not. There are medical people who may think they know what they are talking about, but they don’t. They make decisions based on something they’ve read or heard without doing their own adequate research. For every doctor who graduated in the top half of his or her class, there are equal numbers who graduated in the bottom half.

I am very thankful that the discussion of complicated grief and its potential inclusion in the DSM-5 has brought the topic of grief and its many complications to the forefront of discussions. Grief and those who grieve deeply have been swept to the side for too long. We have much understanding to gain from the research, the foremost of which is caution in pathologizing grief.

Are there times when help is needed in processing grief? Without a doubt. But there are also other times when someone else (relative, concerned friend, acquaintance, doctor) determines that a bereaved person needs to be “helped,” instead of trying to understand that grief is not tidy nor simple and that compassion, understanding, a listening ear and adequate time to grieve is what’s needed. When that someone is a reactionary doctor with authority (perceived or otherwise) over the bereaved’s life, that’s when we can run into problems such as Ms. Schumacher encountered.

*Credit for article quotes:

© 2014 Rebecca R. Carney


Here’s a link to testimony of Ms Schumacher:

13 thoughts on “Grieving Mother Held Against Her Will in Psychiatric Ward

  1. What they did to her is disgusting. The Bible says you reap what you sow, those people involved will one day reap the harvest of evil they planted.

    I agree with the letter I received from the organization that handled Joe’s organ donation. The letter stated if I was still grieving Joe’s loss as if it was day one, then I suffered from complicated grief and needed professional help. I received this letter on the second anniversary of his passing and by that time I had moved forward with making a new life for myself. I still loved and missed him when I got the letter but grief no longer controlled my life as it did in the beginning.

    Thanks for this post. God bless you and your family.

  2. brilliant post well written and insightful, thank you for this, i firmly believe it should be used as a guide by all doctors and authority figures etc far too many people are labelled without any real information or care as to how they should be helped, again thank you,

  3. I bet most of those “doctors” have never lost a child. That is the most trying thing in your life. I lost my son 3 years ago from suicide. Thankful, I had a good doctor. He just upped my meds when I told him that I thought my son had shown me the way. He didn’t want to hospitalize me. He was very understanding. When my grief had lessen, I dropped the extra medicine. I think a lot of mental health doctors or Phd’s go into the field to see what’s wrong with their own mental health.

  4. Our culture has changed so much. Back in the day there was a time of mourning and I have to believe grieving was understood better. Perhaps it was because there was so much death. Today, we like things done quickly, efficiently, and nicely packaged. When people expect something from you only months after losing a child, you know grieving is not understood.

    • I agree. In some of the publications I’ve been reading on complicated grief, one of the topics addressed is our culture. It used to be understood that grieving, particularly the death of a child, took a long time. One researcher felt that our culture now is driven by needing people to be productive. This need has led to extended or intense grief being seen as a problem instead of the norm.

  5. This is such a fascinating and difficult issue, Rebecca. I haven’t even heard the term “complicated grief” in any context other than your explanation. But I do think it’s a little unnerving to think that there is a scale, perhaps arbitrarily interpreted, where grief is considered in light of pathology. I am eager to talk to my niece, a young therapist, and ask her how she has been instructed in this area. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. And you’re right…every parent’s worst possible fear, and I can’t imagine anything but overwhelming grief. How long should it last? That’s an impossible question!

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