Coping with other people’s reactions to our grief

This post continues the topic of the loneliness of grief. It looks at how we can cope with other people’s reactions.


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 held this discussion at other events and I’m often struck by the similarity of the results.

One constant theme is how much kindness makes a difference. Quite simply: kindness from other people helps when you’re struggling with loss, and a lack of it hinders. Kindness could be in the form of a hug to a phone call to a visit to a sincere interest in listening to our story.

A recurrent theme on the “lack of kindness” side is about how other people sometimes try to take over our grieving, they will be judgmental or bossy, telling us 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.  These comments might be well-meaning, but they don’t help.

Sensitivity is always considered a big plus on the kindness side, whereas insensitivity makes life much more difficult. Sensitivity may show itself in an awareness of how we’re 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 the most common themes and I’m guessing they are likely your experience too.

The impact of other people’s words and actions

I wish everyone was kind and thoughtful, but they’re not. So how we do to handle it?

It seems that 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 be very upsetting. We are facing such unavoidable sorrow and pain, we simply may not be able to bear any additional emotional conflict. And so we might retreat to protect ourselves, rather like a hedgehog will roll up tightly into a ball as a last resort when facing danger.

Hedgehogs put a new spin on the common phrase, “Stop, drop and roll.” Their defense stance takes the form of rolling their bodies into a tight ball when they perceive a threat, whether real or imagined. This posture points their quills outward, thereby making them more effective in warding off whoever or whatever is intruding on their space. This can very well be considered a last stance, as a hedgehog might try fleeing first before balling up. (https://petcentral.chewy.com/12-strange-but-common-hedgehog-behaviors-and-facts/)

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.

More about the hedgehog

Managing the impact of what other people say and do is a part of our journey of living with loss.

At the hardest times – and certainly during the early times following our bereavement – it’s not surprising that we are affected negatively by other people’s lack of kindness or insensitivity.

We might not even realise that it’s their problems that are making them behave the way they are, and we might instead blame ourselves. 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.

Still, as we have no magic wands to transform them into kindly saints, what we do next is our challenge.

The hedgehog’s first defense is getting away. If comments/interactions are upsetting us, then it’s not a bad idea 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!).

Avoiding certain individuals is probably healthier than getting ourselves all tied up in knots and clamming up, avoiding people altogether. (Think of that hedgehog rolled in a tight ball, spikes sticking outward.)

But while such a ‘get away’ strategy might be okay for now, it’s not a long term plan.

Generally speaking, we need both solitude and friendship. Human beings are relational creatures. We draw strength from our interactions with each other, even though not all of those interactions are helpful. We do need each other. Having social relationships, imperfect as they are, will help us avoid the isolation and loneliness that can be another very sad long-term consequence of bereavement.

Our self-confidence and resilience have taken a big battering by the death of our loved one. But as we live with our loss and find ways to cope, our resilience will rebuild. We might find that eventually other people’s actions and comments don’t bother us as much as they did before. We don’t get quite as offended. If we can survive a coffee with ‘that’ person who until now we’ve been avoiding, it probably means we are more resilient than we were, and that’s a good thing. It’s going to be better for us – emotionally, psychologically and socially – when we find that we no longer need to run off or clam up, even in the face of silly statements, insensitive questions, and thoughtless behaviour. It’s something to aim for, even if such calmness seems far off at the moment.

In the meantime, it’s important to find people we can talk with who do understand, so that at least on some occasions, we can relax and be ourselves. Hopefully we have at least one friend or family member who is able to treat us with the kindness and understanding that we need. If not – or in addition – we might want to seek out new friendships amongst others who are similarly bereaved. A hedgehog sanctuary, perhaps! (Links for places to meet people.)


Resources for “other people”

It can be a good idea to keep educating our friends about grief, and helping them realise what does and doesn’t help us. Not everyone will be open to this, but if they are, we will all be beneficiaries.

DSC01468 (2)

A hedgehog that is really not too bothered by what is going on around it. Not many of us are this calm in our grief!

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