Grieving people often seem to be walking though quicksand and appear oblivious to the world around them. At the same time, they usually have a heightened awareness as it relates to whether or not they are being judged, evaluated, or criticized.
Those two extremes may seem to be in conflict, but they are normal and healthy reactions, especially when they are caused by the impact of the death of someone important to them
Following a death, grievers hear many comments that aren't helpful to them. A classic example is: "Don't feel sad, you should feel grateful that you had him/her for so long!" Over the years we coined a phrase—killer cliches—to define those well-intended but unhelpful comments grievers hear repeatedly in the days, weeks, and months after the death of someone meaningful to them.
Intellectually, the grieving person probably is extremely grateful for the time they had with the person who died. And if grief were intellectual then that comment might be helpful. But the death of someone important to us is a massive emotional event that breaks our heart. Any attempt to shift the grieving person from their natural emotions about the death and about their relationship to the person who died, is misdirected and not helpful.
Killer Clichés Plus Avoidance - a Recipe for Emotional Disaster
In addition to the constant fight against those killer clichés, grievers start to experience being avoided by people they know. They notice that friends who know about the loss will not approach them; or if they do meet, will talk about other things without ever mentioning the loss.
The truth is that people often do avoid grievers. Since our society has so mis-educated us about loss, we are led to believe that grievers want and need to be alone. Although grievers sometimes want to be alone, they also often want to talk about what has affected their lives.
Because we were never properly taught how to talk about the wide range of emotions caused by loss, we are often afraid to talk to our friends when they have experienced a loss. Therefore our own fear will cause us to avoid grievers or to avoid the subject of their loss.
Fear is one of the most common responses to loss. For example, when a spouse dies: How can I go on without them? Or, after a divorce: Where will I find another mate as wonderful, as beautiful? While fear is often the emotional response to loss, in our society, ISOLATION is frequently the behavioral reaction to that fear.
Look at the combination outlined above. People avoid grievers because they are mis-informed and afraid. Grievers avoid others because they are afraid, and then they isolate. Is anybody talking to anyone else? And if so are they talking about anything important to the griever?
As the result of the thousands of direct interactions we've had with grieving people, we can tell you that grievers want and need an opportunity to talk about "what happened" and about their relationship with the person who died or to whom they were married. That does not mean that every griever will want to have a detailed conversation with every one they meet. Nor does that mean that you need to be an expert in order to talk with them.
What we are suggesting is that instead of avoiding the subject of the loss, that you at least acknowledge it. A simple comment like, "I was sorry to hear about your loss," can be very helpful to a griever who may be questioning their own sanity because no one is even mentioning their loss. It will also give them what might be a welcome opportunity to talk about their loss.
From time to time we will all be subject to the sting of loss. We will all have to address the cyclone of emotions that will threaten to capsize us, and indeed that will make us question ourselves and our emotional sanity.
The famous line, Judge Not Lest Ye Be Judged can surely be restated here: Avoid Not Lest Ye Be Avoided, when your time comes.