Avoidance is an important concept for grievers to understand. Some of you may remember we briefly touched on this subject when we discussed avoidance coping vs. taking a break from grief. Although this post made an important distinction, it didn't seek to explain avoidance and the ways in which this type of coping might impact one's experience and behavior in relation to the death of a loved one. We have a lot to cover today so instead of our usual introductory meandering, I'm going to get right down to business.
What do we mean by avoidance?
To avoid is broadly defined as, "To keep away from or stop oneself from doing (something)". At face value, this doesn't appear to be a complicated concept. You probably avoid every day, I know I do!
For example, I might avoid Interstate 695 on my way home from work because it's always congested. Then I might avoid an old acquaintance in the grocery store because I don't feel like talking. Finally, I might avoid getting in line behind a sniffling woman with a cart full of ginger ale, popsicles, and cold medicine.
Now I want you to take a minute to think about this example and identify what you think I'm avoiding. Am I avoiding people and places? Technically yes, but why? The real reasons why I steer clear of these specific people and places come from a desire to avoid the unpleasant experiences and feelings I associate with traffic, awkward encounters, and illness.
When we talk about avoidance in regards to grief, we are usually referring to experiential avoidance. Experiential avoidance is an attempt to block out, reduce or change unpleasant thoughts, emotions or bodily sensations. These are internal experiences that are perceived to be painful or threatening and might include fears of losing control, being embarrassed, or physical harm and thoughts and feelings including shame, guilt, hopelessness, meaninglessness, separation, isolation, etc. Now please note I say "perceive to be painful or threatening," these judgments are often subjective and what is perceived as threatening to one may seem totally irrational to another.
Why might grievers engage in avoidance?
Grievers must walk a gauntlet of traumatic memories, painful emotions, logistical issues, secondary losses, and so on. At first, one might feel shackled down by the weight of all-consuming grief, but over time find they have periods of semi-normalcy broken up by waves of grief.
The onset of a grief wave is sometimes predictable but often not and each new wave brings with it an ocean of unpleasant thoughts, reminders, sensations, and memories. For many people, grief is the first time they experience emotions of this type and intensity and in response, they may exhibit physical, behavioral and emotional reactions they aren't comfortable with. This may be particularly true for those who have yet to develop a reliable set of coping skills. Although grief is always unpleasant and uncomfortable, for some there are aspects that actually seem threatening and these perceptions can lead to attempts to control or avoid frightening feelings and reactions.
A few examples:
- I avoid going to church because I fear the hymns will remind me of my loved one and I will become emotional in public.
- I avoid the street where my wife had her accident because I'm afraid it will trigger traumatic memories.
- I avoid the hospital because I fear the machines and people in scrubs will trigger overwhelming memories and I will panic.
- I avoid feeling the emotions of grief because I fear losing control or going crazy.
- I avoid going to sleep at night because I'm afraid I'll have nightmares.
- I avoid putting my son's belongings away because I fear I will lose my connection to him and he will disappear.
- I avoid being exposed to my son's belongings by putting them away immediately because I'm afraid if I see them every day the pain will never go away.
- I avoid feelings of grief around my partner's overdose because I fear I will find I'm responsible.
What does avoidance look like?
- Substance use
- Isolation or withdraw
- Throwing oneself into work, advocacy, volunteering, etc
- Staying busy
- Avoidance of people, places, and actives out of fear of grief being triggered
- Avoidance or denial of feelings and emotions
- Grief that appears to be absent: lack of emotion and acting as though everything is fine
When is avoidance useful?
Avoidance can be useful, especially when one is dealing with something as painful and enduring as grief. During the first few days after a death, feelings of grief can be overwhelming, yet ritual and tradition dictate that grievers must get dressed, plan services, tie up loose ends, and deal with family and friends. I've often heard people say that they put off crying during these first few days because they knew if they started crying a volcano of emotion would erupt and they would be paralyzed.
Beyond the first few days after a death, grievers must find a way to manage their emotions in the weeks and months that follow. Grieving parents never get to take time off and grieving students and employees are often back to their responsibilities within days to weeks after a loss. In order to manage responsibilities, be a functional family and/or society member and just generally get stuff done, it is often necessary to avoid certain grief reminders and triggers from time to time.
Lastly, as we discussed in our post on avoidance coping vs. grief relief, sometimes it's just necessary to take a break from grief. This is a major tenant of the Dual Process Model of grief which says that grievers must oscillate between confronting their loss (coping) and avoiding it (seeking respite).
When is avoidance maladaptive?
Although we've noted that avoidance can be useful, for many it can become a harmful cycle that persists to the detriment of personal healing. Many mistakenly think that if they make efforts to avoid their feelings for long enough these unpleasant emotions will be kept at bay or fade away, when in actuality deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts often make them more likely to surface.
While one is busy trying to avoid and control their grief, their world gets smaller and more complicated. Fear of grief related thoughts and emotions can start to limit the ways in which a griever is able to fill their roles as a spouse, parent, friend, employee and society member and impacts their overall ability to be the person they want to be.
A mother who's no longer willing to sing to her child, a father who's too afraid to teach his son to drive, a widow who's afraid to fall in love again, a daughter living in a house full of her parent's old relics, and a son hesitant to face sleep without the help of a bottle of wine - these grievers are stranded, abandoned, intoxicated, and absent and their inability to live in the present keeps them forever stuck in the past.
Avoiding seemingly painful stimuli might prove beneficial in the immediate, but it is a short-term solution. It's like taking an aspirin to treat a broken arm; it may temporarily dull the sting, but if one doesn't address the broken bone they will never be able to heal. In order to gain understanding, perspective and tolerance for the pain of grief, one needs to allow themselves to actually feel it, face it, and be present with it in the moment and in the future.
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