How Journalist Cody Delistraty Attempted to Cure His Grief

Cody Delistraty's new book ‘The Grief Cure’ questions modern approaches to grieving through a series of personal trials and scientific fact.

It’s not every day someone sits down with a stranger to talk about their grief, but that’s exactly what author and journalist Cody Delistraty hopes to see change. Delistraty’s new book, The Grief Cure, takes readers on a nuanced journey through his process of grieving the loss of his mother. Exploring, and often trialing, everything from laughter therapy, literary prescriptions, psilocybin and memory deletion, Delistraty attempts to ‘cure’ his isolating grief. By mixing personal stories and introspection with scientific studies and historical fact, Delistraty not only sheds light on some of the loneliest moments of the human experience, but also leaves readers questioning whether formal settings, like therapy, are the best spaces for processing loss.

What drew you to documenting your journey with grief?

I think a lot of the book came out of me trying to illuminate some societal and personal blind spots about grief. I never really questioned if there was going to be another way to grieve besides via the Five Stages of Grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. I was pretty good at school, a good son and I felt like I could be a ‘good griever,’ too. To me that meant just being closed in my grief, being quiet about it, not burdening others with it. But really over the course of the last decade and writing this book, I found out that every aspect of that thinking was wrong. The five stages are broadly misinterpreted, closure doesn’t really exist, strength in grief doesn’t necessarily come in silence, and the idea of grief as a burden is really an American and British 20th-century social construct. The book was a process in which I got to discover those things, and then try to illuminate [them] for other people.

Why do you think grief is still seen as a taboo subject when it’s something everyone will experience?

I was shocked by the degree to which, at least in the US, there’s a real simmering, just under the surface, of a desire to talk about these things. But there’s a real fear of burdening or breaking a social contract in what is or isn’t allowed to be discussed. I was in San Francisco doing some of the research and I went out to a bar with a book, and on no less than three occasions I would get into a conversation of, “Oh, what are you doing here?”, and then so many people would talk [to me] about their grief. One woman told me that her husband had just died, and she hadn’t really discussed this with anyone. There’s just this openness that begets openness, and I feel that’s valuable.

It’s human nature to relate to someone else’s experience and see that as an open invitation to self-disclose.

 Yeah, it’s so valuable to find that in non-formalized spaces, because I think an American value is in professionalizing so much of the human experience. It’s like you have to wait for counselling to discuss these things, but I don’t really subscribe to that. I think that finding this within your normal community, within your friendships, your neighbors and family is really the way forward for how it’s best to grieve.

Just because something is painful, doesn’t mean it needs to be solved. Cody Delistraty

You spoke about the lack of community support in the US when it comes to grief. I was wondering if you could speak more about this idea of ‘solving’ grief…

There’s this rise in happiness culture in the US and the UK – the seminal marketing breakthrough of the 21st century – which is the idea that grief isn’t natural, but instead a burden, and what do you do with burdens except solve them or push them out of the norm. I think it’s local community disintegration, which I talk about in the book, and this leads to a weariness of talking about loss. Geoffrey Gorer, the British anthropologist, as far back as 1965 was finding that this was having detrimental health effects on people. So, we know that it’s not good for us, and yet it’s still hard to overcome this kind of social contract that we find ourselves within.

How do you feel about the idea of classifying prolonged grief as a disorder?

My thoughts on Prolonged Grief Disorder are nuanced. It’s a very complex disorder and I think there’s been some misunderstandings of it. Grief is so deeply human and the idea that there is a version of it that is disordered is understandably scary. [But] I think it helps give a name to something that people are feeling. I think, fortunately and unfortunately, medicine really carries the paramount value, as far as what people respond to and view as legitimate. So, if you say “I’m having a tough time” to your family, that may not go as far as saying “I’m having a tough time, and a doctor says it’s legitimate.”

I’m not certain where I stand on it. I was trying to use it in my book to show the way grief studies are still expanding. There are new ideas on the horizon. Prolonged Grief Disorder is just one example of how we haven’t finished our understanding of grief, and it’s something that merits study and really deserves looking at.

There was a section in the book where you referenced a poster that epitomized the business of grief. What are your thoughts on the commodification of grief?

 Yeah, Albert Camus was having lunch on a trip to New York in 1946 and he found a promotional flyer that said, “You die, and we do the rest. Hurry up and secure your spot.” Funerals are a very interesting locus of the business conversation. Commodification of grief or loss is something that is always going to happen. But I think the fear is that you end up selling things like community as a luxury good. That was so much about WeWork’s $46 billion valuation and things like Soul Cycle, this idea that just getting to spend time with others like you is something you should pay for. So, I think anytime if there’s money to be made, Americans are going to jump on it, and grief is no different unfortunately.

I was intrigued by the section in which you explore overcoming grief through literature. I was wondering if the process of writing your own book helped more than reading someone else’s?

I got into a kind of meta state of mind about writing about the act of writing about grief. Absolutely it helped. Thinking through all these questions, like I said earlier, I really thought there was a ‘way’ to grieve, I really thought that I was ‘doing it right’ and that ‘doing it right’ was in and of itself the thing we should be going towards. Then reading a ton of studies, talking to a lot of people and going on these sorts of quasi adventures myself… Absolutely I felt closer to my mom. I was actively trying to reckon with her loss every day that I was writing this. So that was a huge part of it and finding solace in saying, “Look, I’ve done all that I can to ‘cure’ it, in the US/UK sense, and that hasn’t worked.” I found so much value in being present and with community. That felt freeing. To feel like I had found, not the right way, but the way that worked for me.

One thing that terrified me within the book was how close we are to medical interventions designed to delete memories. How do you feel about the ethics of this?

There’s still controversy around that. One ethicist of neuroscience said: “Ten-15 years and we should be able to really target memories.” He also talked about Propranolol, which I wrote about, which has the effect of really diluting memories, if it’s given in an immediate way. But the tricky thing about this is, as much as people might feel that it’s coming soon, it’s been tried on mice and arachnids. So, we’re not really at that point yet. I used those examples to show the way we need to be reckoning with long term ideas of scientific and medical progress in relation to grief. Because I think eventually we will get to these places, and we need to be preparing now for how we want to use them.

 What do you wish people knew about grief? What do you think society could do to change the way we look at people who are grieving?

Society is a tricky one, but I guess I’ll just speak for the US. I think the biggest takeaways are just really needing to contend with the scientific and technological near-future of grief. I think where certain types of pain might be vastly improved via neuroscience, psilocybin, AI and pharmaceuticals, we would really do well to consider that much of grief remains a valuable aspect of being human. Just because something is painful, doesn’t mean it needs to be solved.

What’s your hope for the future of grieving?

Having those conversations at the bar be ones that people are happy to engage in, that they think are totally normal. For people to have a better understanding that everyone is going through something, that it’s not weird, that it’s not abnormal, and that 9 times out of 10, people are open and receptive to discussing it. It doesn’t have to be something that’s shameful or that you’ve failed at your willpower at if you can’t keep it quiet.

The Grief Cure is now available to purchase in the US.

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