Avoidance Coping vs. Grief Relief: Taking a Break from Grief

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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I've alluded to the fact that I've been going through a bit of a... ahem... rough patch, This is one of those all-consuming tough times: One that occupies 100% of your thoughts and 50% of your conversation. Your life is spent involved in spurts of trying to put your life back together and longer stretches where your consumed by an inability to move. It’s been 7 years since my mother's death, but these days I am reminded what those of you in the wilderness of your grief are experiencing on a fairly regular basis... some to a greater degree and some to lesser, it all depends; but regardless, what I anecdotally know is this, you have got to find some grief relief once in a while or you will go insane.

We recently had a reader ask a very important question. He sought clarity on the difference between staying busy to avoid grief and being busy to obtain intermittent relief from grief. Avoidance coping and taking a break are two very different things. The first being a hinderance to healthy grieving and the later being a requisite. I would hate for anyone to get the two confused and feel guilty or dysfunctional for allowing themselves that which is necessary (i.e.m a grief time-out).

In psychology, Avoidance Coping is considered a maladaptive coping mechanism (that's a fancy way of saying not helpful). As you might expect, Avoidance Coping basically means one avoids dealing with negative or anxiety-producing issues, stressors, thoughts, or feelings. In grief, this might mean you avoid thinking or talking about your loved one, put off tasks because of the perceived emotional impact, or avoid acknowledging and dealing with complicated emotions. Unfortunately, by actively avoiding these things and allowing your fear to hangout in the back of your mind, you actually wind up allowing your anxiety to grow.

afternoon coffee breaks. movie nights. a good novel. lunch with an old friend. 30 minutes of exercise. a good hearty laugh. sleeping in guilt-free. cooking. baking. your favorite playlist. a trashy magazine. shopping. meditation. surfing the net. dancing in the living room.

Now this is different than someone who is dealing with their grief in their own way and at their own pace, yet feels the need to take a break from time to time. I hope the commenter who raised the original question doesn’t mind me quoting him but he put it very well when he said:

[I] “find grieving to be helpful and necessary, yet it also is exhausting. I find I can recover from periods of grieving by napping, or by cooking, watching TV, reading, running errands, going to a movie, visiting family, etc.”

What our commenter has described here is good self-care.

Experiencing periods of grief, trauma, life-transition, and emotional crisis can be mentally exhausting. Similar to allowing your body short breaks to recover when exercising, you must allow your mind and body to take a break from dealing with complicated thoughts and emotions.  In fact, one of my favorite grief models - the Dual Process Model of Grief - says that it's healthy and helpful for people to alternate between facing their grief related thoughts, emotions and secondary stressors and avoiding their loss (i.e. taking a grief time out)

Oftentimes, especially early on, grieving individuals feel guilty for allowing themselves to be distracted. It's normal to feel this way, and all I can do is urge you please give yourself permission to take a breath. In many ways you will be grieving this loss forever, so pace yourself.  Now, get out a pen and a piece of paper and brainstorm the things you do (or can do) to take a break from your grief. I assure you, it doesn’t have to be grand. Here are a few ideas to get you started...

  • Go to the movies
  • Find a hobby
  • Bake something
  • Cook something
  • Listen to music
  • Hike
  • Exercise
  • Spend time with friends
  • Read a good book
  • Chat on the phone
  • Play with the (grand)kids
  • Dance
  • Join a club
  • Take a class
  • Have a laugh
  • Shop
  • Watch TV
  • Sleep
  • Use your imagination
  • Check things off your to-do list
  • Work
  • Take a bath
  • Go outside

How do you take a break from your grief? Share it with us below or on Facebook. Also... Subscribe!

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After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible, real-life book!

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7 Comments on "Avoidance Coping vs. Grief Relief: Taking a Break from Grief"

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  1. Caryn Rogers  June 12, 2019 at 11:00 am Reply

    I think I just don’t want to be a part of the grief club. I am ashamed of my vulnerability. My dad died three weeks ago, and I’ve been all over the place. I’ve opened up to a few people n an online writers group, but I don’t like looking like a sad hot mess. They know I’m going through this alone because I don’t have any friends and they offer their sympathy. I’ve shared poetry about how I’m feeling. But, I don’t want to do that anymore. I coped with losses in the past by drinking. I can’t do that this time. I have an elderly mother with health problems to look after and my sister is starting treatments for breast cancer. I can’t sink into a bottle. I’ve been in counseling in the past, but now my social anxiety has kept me from seeking help. I don’t know what else to do except keep everything to myself and try to be ok.

  2. Karen Melms  August 7, 2018 at 12:11 am Reply

    My husband recently died at the age of 57 from vasodpasm stroke complications after brain hemorrhage surgery. I loved him dearly and I feel broken and sad. I am always a positive person and grief is devastating and lonely. So after 4 months of tears and a desperate internet search for nonexistent grief solutions, I’m going to Finland to visit my exchange student “sister”. I love to travel and I need some grief relief fun. At first I thought I was running away but now I realize that I’m running toward my first attempt at moving forward on my own. I hope to I return from this much needed vacation with a positive attitude about new opportunities knowing that I will be forever changed by the death of my love, but hopeful I will find more happiness in my future than sadness and grief.

  3. John Ball  May 9, 2016 at 11:08 pm Reply

    I keep asking why why did this happen she had been a loving compassionate nurse for 25 + years didn’t want to go to the hospital some people say it just her time. That God has plans for her but that don’t make me feel any better

    • Eleanor  May 11, 2016 at 10:53 am Reply


      I’m so sorry for your pain and about your wife’s death. People often offer sentiments like – “it was her time” and “it’s God’s plan” – but rarely do these words change our pain in any way. I want you to know what you are feeling sounds very normal, her death was only just last month. People often question and replay the circumstances and ask ‘why?’. There is absolutely nothing I can say at this point to make you feel any better, but hang in there. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it does make some of grief a little less intense.


  4. John Ball  May 9, 2016 at 10:56 pm Reply

    I lost my wife my best friend my lover mother to my two sons and
    Grandma to Emma skylar And little cavin Ryder who was born may the 5.2016 Carolyn died April 11 and it seems like yesterday yesterday and today was really rough she died in our bed room. It just she was never sick. She caught the stomach bug and thru the process of throwing up couldn’t keep anything down lost her potassium and got very dehydriated causing her heart to go in to arythemia.
    We had been married 40 years she died at age 61

  5. Denise Hughes  January 11, 2015 at 3:29 am Reply

    My mother passed away at the end of November after years of declining health due to Chrionic COPD. For years she had been housebound and dependent on me and my sister for doing everything for her and what seems like forever, my life has always revolved and been ruled and manipulated around her. So why have I not gone to pieces since her passing, why have I not cried, why am I in what seems to be an emotional void!!??

    I’ve told myself that because of the funeral arrangements, then catching up on Christmas, going away for Chritmas and New Year and now dealing with the final financial arrangements, are all reasons why I’m not grieving….. I’m waiting for mums passing to hit me and wondering when or if it ever will! How do I grieve and if I don’t am I just heartless and made do stone?

    Since her passing I’ve tried to pick my life back up and tried to relish the fact that at last I do not have to consider the impact on mum when arranging to meet friends, visit my children or even arrange holidays or decide to do something I would like to do. My mind is blank, my feelings numb, I have little energy or desire to take up or go dancing, something that I love and has been my stalwart for years. I have no creative desire or energy to continue with my card making, another hobby of mine and something I could happily spend hours lost in……. Is this my way of grieving!?

    • Eleanor  January 13, 2015 at 11:33 am Reply

      Hey Denise,

      Your mother was ill for years and from what I understand you knew ahead of time that her death was coming. Have you read our article on anticipatory grief? I think this may shed some light on the way you are handling your mother’s death.

      On the other hand it does sound like your mother’s death has had an impact on your ability to take pleasure in the things you once found pleasureful. Your mother’s death was not so long ago and after years of centering your life around her it makes sense that you should still be struggling to adjust. Perhaps because you had time to understand and accept your mother’s death before it even happened, that instead of the extreme feelings we always think we’ll feel, you are instead feeling numbness.

      It’s hard for us to know for sure what you’re experiencing from our limited interaction here on the website. I would say if you continue to feel numb and your interest in the activities you once found pleasure in does not return in time (and if you’re not able to find pleasure in other activities) then you might want see a counselor of some sort. Really this is the only way for a mental health professional to truly help you understand what is going on.


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