A community of peers created by the Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation
The Behavior of the Bereaved, by Emily Clark.
Many people talk about the stages of grief, what it should look like, how it can be timed. The truth for those of us out there who have experienced a journey fraught with loss is that there are no stages, no set time lines. Grief can swing around, come full circle, dragging you forwards and backwards on its own whim.
While everyone around you might be thinking it is time to move on or that you have finally begun to cope or “normalize”, you may be churning with turmoil and only beginning to understand the magnitude of what you’ve really lost.
While you outwardly carry on, getting dressed with socks that match and opening your home with a house key instead of trying to cram a car key into the lock, you may be inwardly struggling to survive. This can stretch into a long period of solitude full of self-reflection. The well-meaning friends and family in your life might inadvertently discourage any open grieving, encouraging you to “be happy”, “think positive”, or “move on with your life”.
This form of rejection can cause you to retreat into yourself as you pull away from those around you, isolating yourself on purpose. Often times it easier to be alone so you can express your pain rather than constantly trying to cover it up or be told to put it away by those around you.
I want to outline this today as a gentle reminder to others that when a griever seems to want to be alone, that it is perfectly normal and acceptable. It often is nothing to do with you or what they think of you as a person. They are not trying to subtly tell you they dislike you or prefer the company of someone else. They are not being selfish or refusing to cope, nor are they in denial. They are simply grieving and behaving normally for someone in that much pain. Sometimes being alone can be the most helpful thing for them.
When the magnitude of the loss becomes too great, it can bring us to our knees. We need time to think, to ponder, to go over the details of our loved one’s life and death over and over again in our minds until we can find some measure of resolution on some aspect of it.
Please understand that asking the griever to do the work – to call you or to stop by your place or to make all the effort to connect – is asking too much. They are the ones hurting and will need you to make the effort. After all, if you saw someone injured on the side of the road, wouldn’t you stop and help right away rather than ask them to call you later when they are ok to let you know if there is anything you can do?
Even in times of isolation and sadness it is important to let the griever know you care. While they may not want to see anyone, a simple email, note, text, or phone call saying you are thinking about them and still care can make a huge difference. I personally kept every phone message and email I received from people, including the ones I never had the chance to reply to. Sadly, for months, this was most of them. I still read and listen to these from time to time when I am feeling low. They are a beautiful reminder that I am loved, thought of, cared for.
In particular, a friend I had lost touch with over the years sent me a song that she said reminded her of me and what I was going through. The song ended up being one I played over and over, listening to the lyrics, touched by not only the thought that went into it, but how much I connected the music with my own struggles. A coworker sent me a poem that had helped him through the loss of his own wife. I carried it around with me in my wallet for months, not because it was necessarily a poem I would have chosen, but because I was so touched by the wonderful sentiment behind it. They didn’t have to find the perfect words in their own hearts, they just shared something they had found that they thought might touch mine.
Simple gifts can also go a long way. Giving to a charity in honor of the person they lost can mean a lot. The gift of housekeeping services or a certificate to a spa or massage can make a big difference. Perhaps stepping up to mow their lawn or drop off some groceries are viable options. Even if the griever prefers to be alone, do not be discouraged. There are still many, many ways you can let them know you care and are thinking about them.
Often we on the outside can inadvertently assess the griever’s actions, trying to decide for ourselves where they are at and how that stacks up to where they should be. I know this because I have been both a widow and someone on the outside, watching someone I know become widowed. We have the best of intentions, but we can’t help seeing them through our own assumptions, ideas, and beliefs about grief.
Rather than looking at the griever’s behavior and trying to decide if it is normal or not compared to your own feelings, understand that they are in a position you cannot even imagine. As tough as it sounds, your ideas about what is ‘normal’ behavior for them are misguided, at best. You may think you can imagine what you would do in their position, but that is actually impossible. Instead try to accept them for where they are, and know that their pain is too deep and overwhelming for you to understand without having walked in their shoes. Be the listener they need rather than the giver of advice. Remember, no matter how many losses you have faced, they know far more about grieving than you do right now.
And above all, do not hold their behavior against them later on down the road. While you may never understand why they chose to be alone at certain times or why they seemed so sad for so long, or why they never returned your phone calls, their behavior was still completely normal and a part of their own personal journey.
As difficult as it may be, you must remind yourself that it is not about you. It is about their loss. This is their experience and it will be unique to them. Simply offering your own time and support can be the most amazing gift, and can help them on their road towards healing. Just remember to honor and respect the unique path that they chose.
Our thanks to guest author Emily Clark for sharing her story here with us. You can read more of Emily’s journey through young widowhood on her blog.