The Behavior of the Bereaved

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.

Photo credit.

23 Comments:

  1. sue said on November 30, 2014 at 3:02 pm ... #

    i can relate to these words, and i wish my friends could read them to, i think they tink that i am being rude, when they say..we will come round..at the moment if i decide to see anyone, i always go to them, this way i can leave when i need to, which is somthing i cant do, if they are in my home.
    i wounder if anyone else does this?
    and yes, i have a smile painted on my face, how would like to see a sad face, no one.

  2. Vicki said on December 7, 2014 at 11:18 pm ... #

    I lost my mom last November due to cngestive heart failure, she had never been sick until May of that year. She was never a complainer and such a hard working sweet mom. Her and my dad where married for almost 63 years They did everything together! 2 months later my dad had a massive heart attack and passed away, Even though my mom was 81 and my dad 82, loosing them has been almost more than I an bear. I truly believe my dad died of a broken heart. He was so sad after mom left he just couldn’t get over it. I Ave 2 brothers and we were always such a close family! We (all of us, our kids and gradkids) got together every other Sunday, I spoke with them every morning and every night. I just still feel like ni one understands! My husband says I’m so touchy sometimes. My kids don’t say much but they think I should be getting over it and moving on. The fact is I know I’m touchy, but give me some compassion not, O she’s in a mood…stay clear, Yes sometimes I want to be alone cause this is when I cry. I try nit to let anyone see me cry. I’m just not the person I used to be and I don’t know how to move on. Sometimes I still think Omg… this is real! I want my mom and dad back!!! I just wish the closest ppl to me could understand that this is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. Prayers to everyone on this page my heart goes ou to you!!

  3. where did I go wrong said on December 18, 2014 at 1:14 pm ... #

    I wish I could turn back time, I’m so lost, I just want to disappear

  4. izzie said on December 21, 2014 at 12:13 am ... #

    Hello all. My mother died a month ago after a very short battle (11 weeks) with brain cancer. The process so far has been waves of emotions where one minute things seem manageable to the next minute of being completely overwhelmed. There are days when I can function okay but then I also have days where I just want to cry or sleep or sit in a complete vegetative state. My partner tries to be supportive but then feels that there is a wall of emotion between us and states that I have been less patient. We try to communicate and work through the impact my grief has on our relationship but sometimes I just want to be allowed to just be. Meanwhile, my partner misses ‘the old me’ who was energetic, caring and happy-go-lucky. I honestly don’t know if my relatioship can survive this, but I can say that this is a time where I need to focus on myself and my healing. The things that seem to help are honest communication with my partner, friends, working out, my pups, going to therapy, having a ritual that honors my mom (I light 3 candles in the morning ) and realizing that I am grieving and that it is okay to feel whatever I am feeling. I wish everyone comfort during their own times of struggle. Hugs and well wishes.

  5. sue said on January 18, 2015 at 7:42 am ... #

    I lost my 52 year old best mate and husband of thirty years on December 16th 2014:4 weeks ago to an 18 month battle with cancer linked to an MS treatment he was having.We were between a rock and a hard place.We didn’t have kids and our lives together were so reflective of eachother.We were mates.He made me feel beautiful just in the way he looked at me.When I read this blog and I felt that my thought processes mirrored Emilys.Even some of my language was the same.( I started writing a journal.) Before I had read it I was already analysing and reseaching grief!I used this article and sent it to my family in the hope that it would help them to help me.They thought it most insightful.The battle we fought the last 12 months together continues now in solo.The hardest aspect is it is such a lonely path full of societal expectations that leave you exhausted when you are already shattered.

  6. Andrea said on January 19, 2015 at 9:41 am ... #

    Thank you so much Emily, for this post. My husband and I had been married 2 months shy of 18years, when he unexpectedly passed away. He was my whole life, my love, my best friend and partner in every sense of the word. He passed 3 days before Christmas 2013. We were out Christmas shopping a week be for Christmas. Despite the fact that neither enjoyed shopping, we had an absolutely wonderful day together. We weren’t home 10 mins when he collapsed. Airlifted to Atlanta, we found he had a minor stroke and the prognosis was good. Sadly, during his stay at the hospital, he had another stroke, which turned out to be massive. Three neurosurgeons told me I had a choice to make. I already knew what he wanted, as we had discussed this several times, but that didn’t make it any easier. It was the hardest decision I will ever have to make.

    So many things you stated in your article, I’ve had to deal with, especially with family. They all wanted big family get togethers, that I really didn’t want to be at, but went anyway. When Christmas came this year, I wanted it to go by as quickly as possible. My brother and his wife always have a big Christmas Eve party and I declined the invitation. For a month, my sister-in-law was relentless, thinking she knew best for fear I might commit suicide, even though I have no suicidal tendencies. People call, but don’t know what to say or say too much. I have mentioned my husband at least twice each day to anyone I talk with, since he passed.

    It’s going on 13 months and it still seems like yesterday. I still have a hard time actually believing it really happened and I remember vividly, every single detail from the day he collapsed to the day he passed away. It hasn’t gotten any easier and I know I’ve retreated into myself, for peace.

    I tell people, cherish the time with your spouse while they are still here. Don’t be so arrogant thinking you take care of more than the other did, because I guarantee, you will find out just how much they did, when they are gone, that you took for granted, because it was just “done”. Now it’s all your responsibility and is overwhelming.

  7. Peggy said on January 28, 2015 at 7:14 pm ... #

    Lost my son May 16, 2013. I miss him as much now as the day he passed, don’t think this pain will ever leave. He was 41 years old, the last 25 years of his life he was in a wheelchair due to an accidental gunshot wound. He died 3 times the night he was shot, 8 years later he was very ill and lost his leg at the hip. There are days he is that baby boy going in the OR for surgery on his tonsils and tubes in his ears. Some days I relive the days he was struggling in rehab. My husband and I are facing our golden years without him and I pray my memory does not go, it is all I have left of him.

  8. mark said on January 31, 2015 at 8:48 am ... #

    thank you emily for a very totching letter im man in my late 40s i lost my dad 27nov 2011 i was his full time carer well i lived with my dad all my life in the same house mom and dad was divorced when i was 13 stayed with dad my sister lived with mum. over the years was so mixed up dident under stand i wasent the best child growing up couldent seem to find myself as time went on i fell out with my mum dident like her boyfriend so i stoped going to see her over 25 years now have no feelings for her any more dad allways said to me you only have one mum i know he was right dident listen half of the time dident know how i went through a bad time in my life 20 years felt so lost dad knew me as i allways depended on him hes all i had and i loved him i really loved him he worried about me and i worried about him dad was digagnoised with cancer 2006 ive been through everything with my dad going to hosptail radio therpy my spelling is really bad one of the nurses said i can see how your so devoted to your dad i dident want to see him there wanted him to come home dad died at home with me he died in my arms 3 years on i cry inside of me try not to show my feelings
    im am on my own lonely have no kids and no love in my life i just can not get motavated and it is true if you have never exprenced the loss of someone so very close its hard it really is thanks mark x

  9. Eri said on February 5, 2015 at 9:26 pm ... #

    I read this over and again.And the words this author uses could never of said it better.This is how it is.I just loss my beloved.Who passed away 2 weeks ago.I dunno what else to say.Just know that this helps.
    Take care all who grieve.May we make it through to the other side till it is our time.

    Eri

  10. Donna said on February 13, 2015 at 1:13 pm ... #

    I have just read behaviour of the bereaved, thank you Emily, you are spot on. I have recently lost my dear mum. I am all over the place, on a roller coaster & I want to get off but can’t. I know I have to ride this train as I lost my dearest dad 16 years ago & I kind of know what to expect only it all seems so different. I am the eldest of 4. I am sooo blessed to have some fantastic understanding friends but the thing I can’t get to grips with is people ignoring me. Some of the people at work have totally blanked me, it’s like I’ve got something catching & it’s the people who I thought were friends. Some have even gone about with me like nothing has happened & when I don’t smile or laugh at their jokes, I get ‘oooh whats up with you then?’ I understand it can be hard for people to say something to me through fear of upsetting me but they won’t, it hurts much, much more being ignored or being expected to forget or even feel guilty for my grief to save their feelings, especially when it’s so recent.I feel that by saying something, rather than nothing to the bereaved makes one feel that their grief has been acknowledged and that, to me, means a lot.
    My heart & love goes to all of you on here, who have lost their loved ones
    Blessings
    Donna. xxxxxx

  11. Mim said on February 15, 2015 at 2:41 am ... #

    Thank you! I lost my mother nearly 5 weeks ago. What you have said is what I needed to hear. I have a husband and children but I can’t go back to normal. I only discovered how to cry 2 days ago. I’ve been told to hurry my grief along. I have friends who call constantly worried why I’m not calling them back. I’m now being told how worried everyone is by my weight loss, which is making me feel angry – I just lost my mother… what does 5kg matter? I will without gain that back – but never a mother. Thank you for normalizing my bereavement.

  12. tonia dehoyos said on February 28, 2015 at 4:18 pm ... #

    My husband and I lost our three month old daughter to sids a year ago we are still together but we both are still grieving it seems like life will never change or get better I have a huge hole in my heart there are days I can’t even get out of bed there days I want to just die. I have no purpose in this life anymore. I feel let down by god.

  13. sadness said on March 2, 2015 at 5:40 pm ... #

    Just found this and it is so true. After 8 long and lonely years, with a rule of no crying in public, I sobbed my heart out as it read it, because at last I found some one who understood. I am totally alone, no children, no close family and no one I currently know ever met my husband, so how can they begin to understand what I have lost. Nice to know I’m not alone, but still don’t know how to move on, not even sure if I want to.

  14. Eva said on March 5, 2015 at 9:55 pm ... #

    My heart goes out to everyone posting on here. I am a friend dealing with someone who lost a child. I learned a lot from this article and it spoke to me. Thank you.

  15. Donna said on March 8, 2015 at 5:19 am ... #

    First I would like to say to all of you I am so sorry for your losses. My father passed 24 years ago. I still love him and miss him. My heart is tugged when memories cross my mind. No one gets over losing a loved one. We just learn to live without them. I remember that raw pain lasting for about three years. On January 15,2015 my niece suffering from post partum depression and dealing with a new baby girl 41/2 months old died. She was 28. Beautiful. Nice husband, home and beginning a new chapter in her life. My sisters only child. They had bought the house next door to her. It’s been six weeks. My sister has three fairly good hours a day. The rest she cries. Family and friends have been very supportive. Phone calls, a picture frame with a poem on it, a coffee up with her picture and her babies. Calls from a few of our friends who have also lost children in their 20’s. I was her aunt. I had all boys so her daughter was like my daughter. I swing between disbelief and gut wrenching misery. I cry in my car and at night when all is quiet. My sister will be crying for a long time. I will call her,listen and cry with her. Probably for the rest of our lives. Everyone grieves in their own way. Yet it is similar. Keeping memories alive with pictures, stories and just listening. Most people with a heart won’t judge. If they do too bad. They didn’t lose a daughter or son or husband. You did. Pay no attention to some of the ridiculous things that people say. They are uncomfortable. And truth be told there just are no words. We also lost our baby sister in 2009 to a brain cyst. 42 years old with 3 children. 18,15 and 13 at the time. My sister has her beautiful granddaughter 3 days a week. She finds joy in that. Though she cries because she looks just like her daughter did when she was a baby. My advice stay away from negativity. Remember other family members are grieving too and anger is common. They loved them too. My 23 year old was her best friend as my other two sons are 40 and 38. The youngest tried to pick arguments with me for the past six weeks. I just had to remind myself that I was lost in my grief and he needs my comfort too. Time helps. That said we want to turn back time. We want them back. Her last photo was of her kissing the babies head in front of my Christmas tree. It’s beautiful. Grief is not easy. Never mind the people who don’t understand. Grieve in your own way at your own pace. My heart goes out to all of you with love and eventually some inner peace. Hugs to each and everyone of you that are in pain. Life does go on. Even though you don’t think so you will laugh and smile again but life will never be the same.

  16. grateful said on March 10, 2015 at 8:04 pm ... #

    Thank you so much – so many mean well but don’t understand that pushing you to go out to dinner is well meaning but only aggravates the pain or that just because you want to be alone doesn’t mean you can’t cope. Grief is something you must work through and it takes time and space. Most importantly, it’s different for everyone – one person’s grief is not the grief of another, so please don’t dismiss grief with an offhand “Oh I’ve been there – know exactly what you’re going through…”

    Thank you for such a beautifully written article.

  17. JRo said on March 18, 2015 at 3:42 pm ... #

    So. Much. This.
    I just lost my partner of 20 years to cancer on March 1st, only 6 weeks after her diagnosis. I’m introverted by nature and the needs of other people are overwhelming. They want to grieve with me. I get that. But sometimes I don’t want to share my grief.

    I’m so glad I found these blog posts. I feel so alone, need to be alone, but at the same time need someone to get it.

  18. What now? said on March 22, 2015 at 6:19 am ... #

    I thought I was starting to go mad. I lost my dad 16 months ago, and whilst it was difficult (he lived abroad as he and my mum divorced years ago), my sister and I were able to visit him in hospital. My mum couldn’t attend his funeral as she was ‘a bit poorly’ (they spoke to each other every day). What we didn’t know was that mum had cancer and passed away 3 months later, just over a year ago. I’ve had ups and downs but I feel I’ve come full circle and can’t deal with it. My husband says that I should be paying more attention to the living and not ‘wallowing’. When will this get better? The doc said I had depression and prescribed medication (which I only took for 4 days as the side effects were so awful. I just want everyone to leave me alone.

  19. teresta dominoski said on April 2, 2015 at 3:55 am ... #

    I lost my husband 8 months ago to cancer. I came back to my home town after emptying the home we were renting and said goodbye to the life I had. I returned to learn my mom had stage 4 liver cancer. I break down and cry with no notice. My heart is broken and my soul is torn. My life has a shadow over it that has not lifted. Oh I look alight on the outside but I am slowly dying inside. My life is consumed with work and helping to care for my mother. I miss my husband and his absence is a physical pain I still carry with me. Even though I am a believer and I know he is in heaven and I will be with him again that knowledge does not help me now.

  20. Angela Roberts said on April 15, 2015 at 7:52 pm ... #

    Hello,were do i even begin,its ben 4years now sence my daughter died,she was a priemmie and lived only a minute,befor passing from my arms into the arms of a heavenly father.i am still grieving today,and yes we find a way to keep surviving but as for me i will never be the same,you will think your doing just fine till a friend invites you to there daughters party and you fall to pieces in a minutes time.so much hurt,so many feelings,i guess it helps getting the fealings out,im hoping some one can relate.

  21. Gerald Fllores said on April 18, 2015 at 1:15 pm ... #

    Those words are so true,the closest to how I feel exactly,brought a tear to my eyes because it sounded like something I was writing.
    My wife Rena suffered from cancer for over four years and it was heartbreaking to watch her go through that and see her getting worse by the weeks.
    Rena had to go into a hospital in London because to have a stent fitted in her head as the cancer went to her brain,before she went in she was being sick kept losing sight in one eye every now and then,this was because pressure was building up in her head from fluid which is why the stent was fitted in hospital.
    As I lived 40 miles from the hospital it was difficult to see my wife every day so a decision by both my wife and me to have her brought home and looked after by me was made,so a special bed was sent and I turned the lounge into a bedroom for us.
    I promised I would be with my darling wife until her calling,she wanted to see Christmas and that she did although she wasn’t good Christmas Day but she willed herself to see it with me,the time from the hospital until her calling was spent having to lay down on her back for about 3 months in the special bed,but at least she was at home and could have what she wanted until she couldn’t eat any more.
    Well on the 31st December last year she started to get very bad and was sleeping not drinking or eating which meant she couldn’t take any more medication,the morning of Jan 02 2015 a nurse come to administer some morphine through a line she had fitted,the nurse squeezed her toe lightly then looked at me and said it was the start of her shutting down as no blood went back to her toe,I was told that she wouldn’t make it until bed time,so the last 4 hours I held her hand even though she was in deep sleep and she didn’t suffer one bit,the only thing I noticed was the breathing getting shallower until 4pm it finally stopped,I could do was cuddle her and tell her over and over again how much I love her,it felt like I had been torched my heart ripped out and my stomach feeling like it had been kicked as hard as someone could kick it, the worst feeling I could ever describe,26 years of marriage and 30 years total of love taken away from me,now it’s just me and 3 cats.
    What I have found fro my wifes family is that while she was ill so many of them were calling in offering to do things for me,the one main thing I have seen is the lack of communication from them now even being told that I need to move on now and pull myself together and that I need to phone as well if I want to stay a “FRIEND”of the family!.
    Not even a text or phone call by two of the sisters and the nieces have stopped coming around to see me,so no offers of help or visits by any of them,and one sister doesn’t contact me what so ever.
    They all seem to think it’s about time I pull myself together and get on as normal,like they have.
    All the paperwork and sorting of taking my wife’s name off things was left for me to do,I feel like I haven’t even had time to grieve for my wife properly yet.
    My wife was 54 when she passed away,it still feels like a bad dream and I am finding it hard to accept.

  22. Gerald Fllores said on April 18, 2015 at 1:23 pm ... #

    Those words are so true,the closest to how I feel exactly,brought a tear to my eyes because it sounded like something I was writing.
    My wife Rena suffered from cancer for over four years and it was heartbreaking to watch her go through that and see her getting worse by the weeks.
    Rena had to go into a hospital in London because to have a stent fitted in her head as the cancer went to her brain,before she went in she was being sick kept losing sight in one eye every now and then,this was because pressure was building up in her head from fluid which is why the stent was fitted in hospital.
    As I lived 40 miles from the hospital it was difficult to see my wife every day so a decision by both my wife and me to have her brought home and looked after by me was made,so a special bed was sent and I turned the lounge into a bedroom for us.
    I promised I would be with my darling wife until her calling,she wanted to see Christmas and that she did although she wasn’t good Christmas Day but she willed herself to see it with me,the time from the hospital until her calling was spent having to lay down on her back for about 3 months in the special bed,but at least she was at home and could have what she wanted until she couldn’t eat any more.
    Well on the 31st December last year she started to get very bad and was sleeping not drinking or eating which meant she couldn’t take any more medication,the morning of Jan 02 2015 a nurse come to administer some morphine through a line she had fitted,the nurse squeezed her toe lightly then looked at me and said it was the start of her shutting down as no blood went back to her toe,I was told that she wouldn’t make it until bed time,so the last 4 hours I held her hand even though she was in deep sleep and she didn’t suffer one bit,the only thing I noticed was the breathing getting shallower until 4pm it finally stopped,I could do was cuddle her and tell her over and over again how much I love her,it felt like I had been torchered my heart ripped out and my stomach feeling like it had been kicked as hard as someone could kick it, the worst feeling I could ever describe,26 years of marriage and 30 years total of love taken away from me,now it’s just me and 3 cats.
    What I have found fro my wifes family is that while she was ill so many of them were calling in offering to do things for me,the one main thing I have seen is the lack of communication from them now even being told that I need to move on now and pull myself together and that I need to phone as well if I want to stay a “FRIEND”of the family!.
    Not even a text or phone call by two of the sisters and the nieces have stopped coming around to see me,so no offers of help or visits by any of them,and one sister doesn’t contact me what so ever.
    They all seem to think it’s about time I pull myself together and get on as normal,like they have.
    All the paperwork and sorting of taking my wife’s name off things was left for me to do,I feel like I haven’t even had time to grieve for my wife properly yet.
    My wife was 54 when she passed away,it still feels like a bad dream and I am finding it hard to accept.

  23. mitt said on May 22, 2015 at 11:27 pm ... #

    Thank you. You have expressed
    My feelings.
    I will never know the joy of having unconditional love. I miss her so much. One day we will see each other again!

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