Saturday 29 October 2011

Beware the grief farmers

At the risk of raking over old ground, and fairly morbid old ground at that, I wanted to revisit the subject of grief and autism. Firstly, because it was the catalyst for an intense and fascinating discussion a while ago on the Facebook page hosted by The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. Secondly, because of some events I'd experienced at close quarters (though I wasn't directly involved) in which real, raw, agonising grief was a factor. And thirdly, because the concept is still mixed up with feelings of guilt, shame, and a sense that it is somehow the "wrong thing to feel".

The most common objection to grieving an autism diagnosis is that grief should be reserved for an actual death. Therefore parents who grieve for an autistic child are treating them as if they are dead. This will become a source of tension and resentment when the child gets older. I'd begin addressing this point by directing people towards Jim Sinclair's essay, Don't Mourn For Us, in which Sinclair (an autistic man who was non-verbal for most of his childhood) sanctions the grief response, on the condition that people understand that what they are really grieving is their own dreams and aspirations. They mourn a child who never actually existed. If it helps you to realise this, and accept that the child who was born is fundamentally different from the child you imagined, grief is an acceptable mediator.

I've made the point before that grief is a healing process: it allows people come to terms with overwhelming and irreversible setbacks in their lives. It is often confused with misery and self-pity when its true purpose is to overcome them. On the other hand, I have had it brought into sharp focus lately that the grief felt for a child who was never born is different in nature from the grief that accompanies actual death. Recently I read a heartbreaking, unflinchingly honest memoir by the Dutch novelist Adri van der Heijden about his son Tonio, who was killed in a cycling accident in Amsterdam last year. At about the same time, somebody I know in real life lost a close relative in similar circumstances. I wouldn't try to compare my own feelings with what those people must have gone through: the bewildering sense of random injustice, the raw shock and devastation, the evaporation of hope, which is all the more intense when a young person dies. At the same time, I reject the suggestion that other people's grief can somehow console me or diminish my own. The refrain that "other people have it worse" is invoked too cheaply, too often.

Grief is a healing process, but it has to be worked through. This is the other reason why I would argue it is not misplaced in the case of autism. The alternative is to be locked in a state of unresolved grief. There are, sadly, organisations out there which depend on parents being in this state. They want people to resist, angrily and vociferously, the idea that autism is an indelible element of their child's make-up. They want them to take up cudgels and campaign to "get their child back". They will offer them all manner of snake-oil remedies and false hopes of a "cure". And they will charge a hefty premium for spurious treatments, many of which are no better than witch doctors' potions. I think of them as the grief farmers, harvesting the misery of others for their own gain. They will play on the guilt that repressed grief engenders, telling parents that if they are not prepared to sacrifice everything they own for their children, they are betraying them (why do unproven treatments, as an aside, cost so much more than medically approved ones?). All of this misses the whole point that Jim Sinclair eloquently puts forward - that you cannot "reclaim" a child who never existed in the first place. You can give them therapy, acceptance and love, you can respect their autism rather than abhorring it, and they will have a chance to thrive. And you are much better placed as a parent to offer these things once you have worked through your grief. That's why I'll go on arguing that it's OK to grieve, because to deny grief is far more damaging.