People Want to Be Helpful, But... By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.
There are two kinds of situations that often occur in the lives of those of us who are grieving.
One is what people don’t say, and one is what people do say.
A lot of people—good people, caring people—are so awkward about what to say when someone dies that they avoid saying anything in case they say the wrong thing. Some researchers suggest this behavior stems from people’s fear of death in general. They want to avoid being reminded about death (perhaps their own vulnerability) so they avoid the subject altogether. Researchers also suggest that some people avoid the subject because they don’t want to make the grieving individual feel worse and they fear that saying anything will hurt rather than help in the situation. Others would say something if they only knew what to say.
Then there are those who say too much. These are the people who attempt to provide comfort by giving a grieving person advice or repeating “words of comfort” or reminding them of “truths.” Someone will almost inevitably say, “Oh, you are strong/young/capable…you will make it.” Someone else says, “There are no accidents; some day all this will make sense to you.” Another opines: “There’s a silver lining to every cloud.” Somebody else asserts that God has a plan and what has happened is part of that plan.
It isn’t a matter of whether such statements are accurate or not. It isn’t a matter of whether the people mean well. It’s a matter of appropriateness. When people are in deep grief isn’t the time to suggest to them an “answer” in an attempt to make them feel better.
What is best to say?
Something as simple as “I am sorry.”
I am sorry.
And what should we do if you are the grieving individual and people share their “truths” with you in a way that doesn’t help? Best, I think, to understand that they mean well but to remind oneself that you aren’t weak or faithless because you can’t see it the same way or don’t find comfort in what these people are saying.
And what about those people who don’t say anything? Again, it helps to remember that this is typical behavior for many people in our society. Such behavior usually isn’t personal.
What really helps, however, is to seek out those people who are comfortable with talking with us about the person we have lost. People who welcome our stories and who share their own stories and grief about the person we have lost. Dr. John Bowlby reminds us, in his research, that if we have only one such person in our lives—one person who is willing for us to grieve in any way we want to and who is comfortable talking about the person who is gone and hearing us talk about the person who is gone—we will be able to experience healthy grieving.
How Long Is This Grieving Going to Last? By Elizabeth Harper Neeld, Ph.D.
We feel so bad when we are grieving that it is not a surprise when we wonder, “How long will I have this terrible pain? Will this suffering ever end?”
To talk about this, we need to think about two kinds of time.
There is chronos time.
This is the kind of time measured by a calendar. Chronos time is counted in days, weeks, months, years. Chronos time describes a continuum of past, present, and future. It is the kind of time measured by clocks. A simple way to talk about chronos is as physical time.
Then there is kairos time.
Kairos time refers to “the time within which personal life moves forward.” The movement we experience as a result of moments of awakening or realization measures Kairos time. Kairos time refers to a deepening process that results from our paying attention to the present moment, a process through which we are “drawn inside the movement of our own story.” Kairos is an ordered but unmeasured kind of time outside space-time.
We might be tempted to measure the time of our grieving in chronos time. “Oh, it’s been a year—four seasons have passed—I should be ok by now.” Someone may suggest, “Give yourself a few months. You’ll feel like yourself again.” But it is not useful to measure our grieving in chronos time. In fact, chronos time is helpful only in that it gives us a span within which to experience our own kairos time. To think that because a certain amount of time has passed we should be farther along in our grieving is to set up a false measure of how well we are going. The mere passing of days and weeks and months and years does not within itself bring integration of our loss.
What matters is kairos time. What insights have I had? What have I realized? What meaning am I making of this terrible loss? We each have our own “entelechy”—to use a term from anthropology—that means our own “immanent force controlling and directing development.”
The amount of calendar time it takes to reach integration in our grieving is determined by our own kairos time, through our own entelechy. That’s why is no right or wrong amount of time an individual should take to grieve.
All that being said, what else can we note about time and grieving?
From my own experience and from the research I’ve done for decades on the grieving process, I can say this: the amount of time each of us takes to reach integration of our loss is usually longer rather than shorter.
What do I mean by this?
That the amount of kairos time it takes each of us to reach a place where the loss is integrated into our lives but does not dominate our lives is longer than “the person on the street” might suggest. Many folks around us would like for the process to be shorter rather than longer because they are not comfortable with the whole experience of grieving. As a society, we have cultural practices that suggest grieving should be short. (Don’t, for instance, many government workers get three days off when they lose a family member?)
The good news is that healthy grieving does result, at the time right for each of us, in an experience of integration. We take stock and say: I am changed by our loss, and I have changed my life as a result of my loss. And we are not shriveled permanently like a dry stick because of our loss. We can feel alive again…probably wiser, maybe quieter, certainly full of gratitude and a desire to contribute from what we have been through.
And all in good time. All in good kairos time.
Am I Paranoid, Or Are People Avoiding Me? By John W. James & Russell Friedman
The simple answer to the question posed in the title of this article is, “No, you’re not paranoid, people really may be avoiding you.” Even though you may feel like you’re slogging though emotional quicksand, in some respects you might have a heightened awareness of what is going on around you. In particular, you may sense that people are avoiding you or changing the subject – away from the cause of your grief – if and when they do talk with you. As a result, you may feel as if you are being evaluated, judged, and criticized.
You may wonder why people who usually talk with you will avoid you or change the subject when you have been affected by a death. In part it’s because most of us were socialized to isolate when we were sad: “Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.” So, if it’s true that we need to grieve alone then it follows that others do also. The problem is the idea that we should grieve alone is not correct to begin with. What is accurate is that grieving people need and want an opportunity to talk about “what happened” and about their relationship with the person who died.
In our books and articles we talk about the “killer clichés” that are not helpful to us when our hearts are broken. The majority of those clichés are comments that urge us to feel some way other than the way we feel. Most of them begin with “don’t feel bad,” and then continue with a reason that you shouldn’t. As in, “Don’t feel bad, he or she is no longer in pain.”
When people avoid you because of your grief, it is the non-verbal equivalent of the idea that you shouldn’t feel bad, even though someone important to you has died. By avoiding you or not mentioning the death, the friend thinks they are helping you “not feel bad.” The reality is that by not talking about the one thing that is in the forefront of your mind and heart, they cause more hurt than if they bring up the subject of the loss.
Fear On All Sides
Fear is the most normal and common response to loss. Whether it is a spouse, a parent, a child, or anyone else important to you who has died, your brain and heart ask: How can I go on without them? That fear-based question is a healthy emotional reaction to loss. However, in our society, we are not encouraged to express our fear. Everyone wants us to be strong, instead of human. So we cover up our fear and isolate our feelings from others.
On the other side of the equation, we have been led to believe that grieving people want and need to be alone. We are told to “Give them their space.” While it’s true that grievers sometimes want solitude, they also want to be treated normally. But since we were never taught how to talk about feelings of grief, we are afraid to talk to our friends when they have experienced a loss. Therefore our own fear will cause us to avoid grievers altogether or not to mention their loss.
Look at the combination we just outlined. Grievers avoid others because they are afraid and then isolate themselves. People avoid grievers because they are misinformed and afraid. No one is talking about what is most important to the griever.
The fact that grieving people need and want to talk about "what happened" and about their relationship with the person who died, doesn’t mean that every griever will want to have a detailed conversation with every one they meet. We just want to make sure they have a chance. If you are grieving, we suggest you bring up the topic of your loss so those around you can see that you are willing to talk about it. If you are the friend of a griever, instead of avoiding the subject of the loss, 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. You may be surprised at the heartwarming conversations that follow.