Why are People Distant When They’re Grieving?
What are possible reasons why some people are so distant when they’re grieving?
I read this question online this week. Having drawn into myself after my first husband’s death, I knew at least one reason.
Grieving people may be distant in order to find solitude
For many, solitude in grief comes naturally. When emotionally and spiritually torn apart, people draw into themselves. Grief settles in like a fog. Most of the grieving person’s energy is used for the healing process, which takes a great deal of hard work and is filled with ache, longing, reflection and pain. After Jerry’s death, and also after my mother’s, I turned down invitations of well-meaning friends.
In an article titled “Solitude or Social Support in Grief? Why we Need Both,” published in TAPS 5/2/2019, Author Alan Wolfelt discusses this conundrum. https://www.taps.org/articles/25-1/solitude-social-support-balance#:~:text=In%20grief%2C%20we%20need%20the,It%20is%20actually%20a%20blessing He says “In many ways, grief is an experience replete with contradictions…we can’t stop thinking about the death, yet we distract ourselves so we won’t think about it….we’re resilient, yet we’re vulnerable.”
He says when you “sit in your grief,” you give in to the instinct to slow down and turn inward. You allow yourself to feel and experience the pain. You shut out the world for a time in order that, eventually, you can let the world back in.
In grief, you need alone time to work through, and reflect on, the enormity of your loss. While others can care, love and support, they cannot fully enter into that reflection with you.
But support is also needed
I welcomed hugs and words of comfort from friends at work and church. I told my staff that I would cry at times, and it was okay. They didn’t need to fix me. I spent time talking with God about my husband, the life we’d shared, the hopes and dreams we’d had that were now ended.
But for a while, I spent time with only family and a few close friends who didn’t ask anything of me. They let me talk if I wanted to. They listened without inserting platitudes. If I wanted to be a bump on a log while they talked and ate, they let me do that, without judgment or trying to “fix” me or make me feel guilty if I didn’t enter into the conversation. Their empathy let me express my grief outside myself.
Beyond that, I simply couldn’t handle any additional emotional demands. I was numb. My heart, mind and soul were in overdrive.
When my father died, I told my mother I wished I could take her grief for her. A wise woman, she said, “Carol, you have your own grief.” And she was right. Each of us, as well as my brothers and sisters-in-law, needed to come to terms with our own individual loss, even as we grieved together.
So why are people distant when grieving?
They do it in order to focus on healing—spiritual, emotional, and physical. They may feel life is surreal, divided into “life before” and “life after.” They’re still figuring out what life without the beloved is, and how to navigate it on their own.
For more information on the grief cycle, see my post at https://www.carolloewen.com/?s=Stages+of+Grief.
How can a friend help?
Express care in ways you can, without expecting a response. Continue to be a friend. Send notes, cards. My sister-in-law and her daughter prepared quite a few meals which they put into my freezer, each with an encouraging scripture attached.
Given the opportunity, listen, especially when she wants to talk about her beloved. And pray for your friend. God is faithful.
When you can, affirm the grieving person. Six months after Jerry’s passing I was at the home of dear friends for dinner. I stood by the patio door and said, “Listen to that pretty birdsong.”
Lois emailed me that evening or the next day to say “You noticed that bird singing outside. You wouldn’t have heard that three months ago.” She affirmed that healing, however slowly, was happening.
At an appropriate time, you can recommend a grief recovery group through Hospice, your church, or www.griefshare.org.
Don’t back away, but don’t hover. Give your friend space and time. When he or she heals your friend will need you more than ever!
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. Proverbs 17:17 (ESV)