Sent into a tailspin, finding equilibrium: Coping with other people’s responses to our grief.

What words or actions by others have made your grief easier to bear? What words or actions – or inaction – by others have made things more difficult? 

These are questions I posed at a recent event. They weren’t rhetorical but a springboard for discussion in small groups. I’ve done this activity at other events and I’m often struck by the similarity of the results – not exactly across the board, but there are general themes.

One theme is how much personal interaction helps when you’re struggling with loss, and how a lack of it hinders. “Helping” may range from a hug to a phone call to a visit to a sincere interest in our present circumstances.

A recurrent theme on the “not helping” side is about how other people sometimes try to take over your grieving – those I would call the “grief police” – who will be judgmental and bossy, telling you how to grieve and not to grieve – “don’t you think it’s been long enough now”, “don’t you think you should get out of the house more”, etc.

Sensitivity is always considered a big plus on the helping side, whereas insensitivity makes life much more difficult. Sensitivity may show itself in an awareness of how we’re particularly struggling at certain times; it may recognise when we want company or when we prefer to be left alone; it gives us opportunity to talk about our loved ones without feeling awkward.

There are other themes too but these are probably the most common.

Time zones: Immediate grief, early grief, life grief

We were also talking the other day about the time zones of grief. I describe it like this:

First we face “immediate grief” – from the time of a loved one’s death up to and including the “death arrangements” – i.e. the funeral. This is the time of raw agony, confusion, disbelief. It can be a very emotional experience with lots of tears, whereas others find themselves numb, as though they are just going through the motions. Some people remember this later in a moment-by-moment detailed way, whereas for others the period is a blur.

Then there comes what I term “early grief” – getting accustomed to life without a loved one, with all of the many changes this involves, and the wide variety of emotions that come with loss. It’s a rollercoaster ride, not a straightforward journey through neatly delineated chronological stages.  It could last weeks, months, a couple of years, many years. It’s during this time that we figure out how (and why!) we’re going to keep living without the person(s) who means so much to us.

For someone who has been a carer for their loved one, perhaps due to disability or a progressive illness, it’s finding other reasons to get up in the morning, now that they are no longer here to be cared for.

For someone who has been in a long-term relationship, married or otherwise, it’s finding the motivation to cook for one, to sleep alone, to wake to a quiet house, and a multitude of other practical changes. (See also: One step at a time; life and grief after the loss of a partner.)

For every griever, it’s managing birthdays and holidays. It’s going to old places and finding yourself lost in a maelstrom of memories. It’s going to new places and wishing you weren’t there without that special someone.

It’s riding that rollercoaster of emotion, but hopefully discovering as time goes by that emotions are not usually quite as intense as they were at the beginning. So many days at the beginning were simply unbearable; those very difficult days start to be replaced by middling days and even “okay” days.

There are still times when the heartbreak, sadness, loneliness, anger, guilt, misery, yearning, confusion are overwhelming, but we gradually find ways to get those emotions out, to face them, to work with them, until they are not always governing our days.

“Early grief” is figuring out how to live with what we’ve got now. It can be exploring a new identity.

And then, after an indeterminate time, we find ourselves having arrived in a future that we didn’t expect. We wake up in the morning and we face the day living in the present. This is what I call “life grief”.

The sense of loss and missing our special person(s) never goes away completely  – like the often repeated quote, “Grief is the price you pay for love”. We love forever and therefore we grieve forever. But in “life grief” we are managing in that reality. And although we can easily have setbacks and  times when we suffer “griefbursts” and more difficult periods – particularly when there are subsequent losses in our life whether other deaths of our close circle, loss of health, livelihood, etc, – generally we’re getting on with life as it is.

As it is.

Not as we would have chosen.

Not as we might have expected.

But as it is.

The impact of other people’s words and actions

That’s a rather long way of coming back to the topic of the impact of what people say and do.

In early grief, those insensitive comments that people make; the friends that avoid the subject of our loved one rather than having to face our emotions; the friends that don’t visit and don’t seem to have any idea just how devastated we have been by our loss — all of these, and so many more examples – can really throw us off balance. Our emotions are too fragile. We are going through enough unavoidable sorrow and pain; handling these other issues can be just too much.

But later on – and “later” is not a defined amount of time – it could be weeks, months, years – our friends’ clumsiness doesn’t affect us quite so much. We can brush off comments, ignore them, wave them away. We don’t feel quite so offended and find it easier to forgive. We might actually do better at “educating” our friends about grief when we ourselves are not struggling so much.

The truth is that the insensitive comments and odd behaviours of those around us are a reflection of their own personalities and/or their coping skills and/or their attitudes to death in general, rather than anything much to do with us or the person we’ve lost.

I could take a little detour here to tell you about some of the incredibly hurtful comments I was told in the period after Catherine died, or the friends that seemed to drop off the face off the earth, but I don’t particularly want to re-visit those memories. It won’t change what was said and done, and I would rather leave it in the past. It’s better for my own mental health to remember the kindnesses, in word and action, the gifts of love.

That’s now. However, at the time, I needed to express my hurt and frustration and sometimes utter bewilderment – not usually to the “guilty” parties, but anonymously on a bereavement forum or in discussion with other bereaved parents. I was amazed to find out how many similar experiences we were all having. I still find it astonishing to discover how many relationships – with friends and family members as well –  break down following a death. (If you’re in that situation at the moment, you might find it helpful to find a safe outlet for your feelings, such as a forum or support group, or at one of my events.)


The goal of equilibrium

All of that to say, one aspect of “living with loss” is managing the impact of what other people say and do.

If we find that people’s comments send us into a tail-spin, that’s a pretty good indication that we’re in early grief.

If we can’t see that it’s their problems that are making them behave the way they are, rather than it being about us, then we’re in early grief.

If we can’t find the strength to protect ourselves by avoiding the company of those who are hurting us (if that’s possible – if they share our home it’s not!), then we’re still adjusting to our new life.

That’s okay. “Early grief” lasts as long as it lasts. On the other hand, it’s nice when we eventually get to “life grief”.

Human beings are relational creatures. We draw strength from our interactions with each other, although sometimes those interactions are not helpful. But we do need each other and maintaining our relationships, imperfect as they are, will help us avoid the isolation and loneliness that can be another very sad consequence of loss.

All of that put together means that in the long term, it’s going to be better for us – emotionally and psychologically and socially – if we can find a way to keep our composure, to not be sent off too far off balance, even in the face of silly statements, insensitive questions, and thoughtless behaviour.

Such equilibrium is a good goal to aim for, even if it seems far off at the moment.

It’s also wise to keep educating our friends about sensitive and helpful responses to those who grieve. We will all be beneficiaries.


Further reading about time and grief:

Does grief have a timeline?

The Calendar of Grief




One thought on “Sent into a tailspin, finding equilibrium: Coping with other people’s responses to our grief.

  1. Pingback: Tickling the tomatoes; families and grief. | A Valley Journal

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