Avoiding Grief: Why It Doesn’t Work
No one wants to be sad. In fact, we spend a good part of our life in the general pursuit of happiness, doing anything we can to avoid sadness, heartache, discomfort and pain. That is, until someone we love dies. And suddenly, not only does happiness feel so far out of reach, we may find ourselves actively (if not always consciously) avoiding grief.
The thing is, it’s not just about losing someone we love. This was someone we counted on. This was the one who helped us make decisions, or who supported us no matter what we did. This was someone who knew us like no one else, and who loved us anyway. Someone who was such a part of our daily life, that when their life ended, our life feels like it ended too.
So who would want to think about that? With so much lost and so much sadness, isn’t avoiding grief, or at least trying desperately to push down or push away the overwhelming emotions, the only thing that would make sense?
Of course there is the other end of the spectrum – those people who feel a prisoner to the grieving thoughts. Who would welcome some avoidance, or even just a short respite from the grief, if only they knew how.
Somewhere between avoidance and floundering there could be a place that allows a griever to sit with their grief without being totally and completely swept away by it.
But before we get to that, let’s look at some of the ways people may be avoiding grief and why it doesn’t work:
- Work/Daily Tasks: a lot of us have to work, right? So making work sound like an option won’t sit well with a lot. And it’s important to note how many people I speak with who find work to be a wonderful respite at times. If they’re lucky it may be filled with people whom they consider friends. It may also be an opportunity to feel productive and capable. But there is another side to this. Because I have also met a son who admitted to working 16 hour days, just to avoid going home after his mother died. He was exhausted, and I mean the kind of exhausted that had him so overtired and strung out that he wasn’t even able to sleep or rest when he was finally home. He’s not alone: a lot of grievers choose to dive into their day-to-day routine as a way of distracting them from their thoughts. After all, there’s not a lot of time to think if we’re always working and moving. And while there can be some comfort in the familiarity (and frankly just a necessity to it as well), a never-ending to-do list doesn’t allow a lot of time for rest or quiet, which is something every griever needs.
- Caring for others: again, not necessarily an option for many. Maybe it’s because one parent dies and the adult child is left to care for the other. Or perhaps following the loss of a spouse, the remaining spouse still has young children in the home to take care of. While taking time to get out of our own head while caring for others can be a healthy outlet for the griever (and also because it can give them an opportunity to do what they may do best, being a caregiver) there still has to be an emotional boundary. Caring for others can’t mean putting all of your own needs aside. I can’t tell you how often I speak to a person who has recently lost a parent, and when I ask how they’re doing they say, “I haven’t even had time to think about, I’m so busy taking care of mom now”. While it may not be intentional, this is its own form of avoiding grief. This group eventually loses the second parent, and the wave of grief that comes is double in size as they finally grieve the loss of the first parent who died, along with their most recent loss.
- Drugs or Alcohol: this is a tricky one, especially since abusing drugs or alcohol means a problem was already in place, perhaps long before the loss. And there’s certainly no question that loss can exacerbate this abuse. For some that may mean those in recovery returning to their addiction, or for others it may mean an addiction spinning further out of control. But what about those who didn’t have “an issue” prior to the loss, who find themselves now drinking heavily or taking medication to help them soften the edges of pain? This group will be less likely to seek the treatment available to those in recovery (like Alcoholics Anonymous for example), yet the potential for disaster is just as great.
- Travel: There’s a wonderful book on mindfulness (actually perfect for the grieving heart) called, “Wherever You Go: There You Are”. It’s not only a good book, but the title itself is a reminder that we can’t escape our thoughts, our problems or our grief. Can some time away after loss be beneficial? Of course. Time with family, or a chance to be in nature can be very healing for the soul. As long as the griever remembers that when they’re packing their suitcase they should leave space for their grief to come along with them. Because whether we like it or not, wherever we go there we are, and our grief will be traveling with us.
- Isolating/Avoiding all triggers: let’s say you’ve lost a spouse. And like a lot of couples, a good amount of your socializing was with other couples. For most, their first instinct is to avoid spending time with their friends now that they’re single. Of course some don’t have this opportunity, as they feel friends and couples have drifted away…but there are those grievers who are making the choice to stay away even if invited. It’s perfectly understandable of course, especially in the earlier days of loss, but for some it can be its own way of avoiding grief. So is avoiding stores, restaurants, roads, songs, tv shows, or anything else that may remind the griever of their loved one and their loss. Again, it can be very common and very important for a griever to avoid these triggers initially, especially if the other option is to be constantly assaulted by painful reminders everywhere they turn. As long as the griever remembers that eventually a lot of these people and places are likely to be a part of their life again. So to say, “I’m not going to go to that restaurant now” is okay but add to that, “but I will try again when I’m feeling a little stronger”.
Do any of these sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone. Most grievers are avoiding grief at one point or another. Sometimes it feels like it’s out of necessity. Other times people have told me, “I’m afraid to start crying, because I figure once I start then I’ll never stop”.
There is one problem with avoiding grief, however, and it’s this: grief is patient. There is nothing in our lives more patient than grief and this grief will sit and wait and it will never just go away without being acknowledged.
I had a friend who lost his very young nephew very suddenly and very tragically. He expressed some guilt initially that we all tried to talk him out of, but mostly he spent the first few years following the loss avoiding grief, being “the strong one” in the family, holding it together when his parents and sister (who had lost a grandson and son, respectively) could not. Years passed, and as we all assumed our friend was doing just fine, we were surprised to see him drinking more… and then something else happened along with it. These binge drinking nights turned into very long and painful outpourings of grief. Everything he felt, everything he could never say before would come out, and this happened over and over again, until there just wasn’t anything left to say or feel. And then for him, probably eight or nine years after the loss, his healing finally began.
I learned about the patience of grief then, and how no one gets out of these big losses without acknowledging it. It’s why it’s just so important to take the time to “sit with grief”, no matter how hard it may be.
So what does sitting with grief look like? Well, like most things, that will be different for everybody. For some it will mean quiet time at home to cry, or to scream, or to just lay on the floor in a pile of your loved one’s clothes, in tears. It may mean talking to friends or to family, or attending a support group, or even seeing a counselor. Or it will probably be a little bit of everything.
Just remember to find the balance. Easier said, than done, I know. And in the early days, it’s hard to have a clear enough head to make goals or to try to work toward anything like balance. If you’re reading this as a newly bereaved person than know that whatever naturally happens in the early days of loss, just happens. Like a plane running on auto pilot, the early griever may not feel very capable of making choices about how they grieve. But when the fog lifts and the smoke clears…often times that’s when the real pain sets in, and then what?
Try to find the balance. “Healthy distraction” is good…avoiding grief is not. I speak to a lot of grievers and when I ask, “how are you doing?” there are so many times they reply , “I’m doing good, I’m keeping busy” that I know there is something to this combination that works. The lesson being that a certain amount of busy can be very healthy and healing.
So what’s the right amount of busy? When it gives you enough time out of your head, with a break from the ruminating and the thoughts, but not so much so that you’re avoiding it completely. It may mean working, volunteering, joining a club or being active at church, it could mean spending time with friends. But in all this, there will still be some time alone at home too to rest and reflect, however hard that may be.
Learning to adjust to living alone may be one of the most important tasks for grievers to learn (most especially for those who lived with the loved one they lost) and therefore they need time to do it. If they’re out all of the time, it can be harder to adjust and take that much longer to figure out what this new life is going to look like.
So, find the balance when you can – acknowledge, face and work through the grieving without being pulled away to drown in the sorrow. Ask for help when you need it. Get the rest you need. And finally, remember that if grief is patient, than the griever needs to be patient too. Whenever you think that giving up and avoiding grief would just be so much easier, be patient with the process of grieving, be patient with those around you and most of all, be patient with yourself.
If you feel you’ve been avoiding grief, it’s not too late to do something about it. Grief is patient, and help is always available. We’re here to be part of that help and so are all of the members on our site who can relate to what you’re going through. You’ll find them by joining us here: www.griefincommon.com.