Understanding Avoidance in Grief

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 everyday, 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 judgements 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.

Subscribe here

Check out our grief podcast here

Buy print grief resources here

 

April 12, 2017

16 responses on "Understanding Avoidance in Grief"

  1. I had my husband kill himself
    And after a yr of the most intense drama starting with me learning he was cheating on me for a yr to him being so mad me
    It was my fault
    I was the reason
    I took it so horrible tried to fight back turned my life upside down for a whole year.
    The drama was so bad I almost took my own life.
    In the end a few months later he took his and 100% blamed me and my behavior.
    In the end now I can at face anyone
    My family….most friends
    So painful
    1st my behavior was so crazy.
    2nd he killed himself because of it.
    I hate this feeling of being in my head 24/7. Guit replaying all the stupid things I did or said.
    I hate seeing anyone at all.
    I just stay away from all the family on both sides.
    His family always find a reason to judge me and or make me feel bad as a person.
    I just want my brain to stop replayin every moment over that year.
    Almost makes me want to be gone to not deal.

  2. Yes it is and I am new and probably will never go by that scene or visit the place where my son’s body is buried.
    I understand and I believe acceptance is the key, embrace how I feel yet working toward a life again.
    But I function and accept these as mine . Just cannot expose my fragile heart and soul to these.
    Thank you for listening.
    This is torture

  3. Are you a griever?
    I think avoidance can be healthy for as long as you need like driving past the car accident location where my son was killed . Why would you put a time limit on avoiding something that would cause someone pain. Talking about the examples, music, places. Not work, life.
    I disagree and I know

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Roselyn,

      I am, but I agree with you. As I noted in the article – in many instances avoidance is an adaptive and helpful response.

      However, it may be a sign of a problem when someone’s life becomes extremely restricted in a way that gets in the way of daily functioning (whatever that may be), causes chronic anxiety or when they avoid in a way that prevents them from coping with their grief and/or being able to honor and remember their loved one.

      It’s a tough concept because avoidance can be both helpful and a hindrance so I appreciate you sharing your perspective.

      Sincerely,
      Eleanor

  4. I very much try to avoid thinking of my daughter’s last moments… she was 3 and drowned in our pool. Whenever my thoughts stray to what was going through her mind in those moments I try to divert my thoughts…. I feel so deeply dark because I wasn’t there to save her and I feel like she may have been crying out for her mommy.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Peggy,

      As a mother, I can only imagine how painful such a thought would be. Diverting your thoughts sounds like a natural reaction and this may be one of those instances when avoidance is a little protective, in that it prevents you from spiraling into all the things you imagine might have happened. I think in many different instances in life we try to avoid a thought that might trigger negative rumination and often this is adaptive.

      In grief avoidance of thoughts might be harmful when, despite your best efforts, you continue to experience the thought in an intensely distressing and intrusive way. Or if you have to go to extreme measures to try and prevent the thought – for example, if you begin to avoid people, places, things, imagery, etc that might trigger such thoughts. As you can imagine, in these instances avoidance can cause a person additional emotional pain and can cause their world to become increasingly difficult to navigate.

      My heart goes out to you,
      Eleanor

    • I am so sorry you lost your child. When I read your post I feel moved to tell you something my father told me once. When he was a teenager he almost drowned. He told me that it was one of the most peaceful things he ever experienced. He felt panic before the first breath he took underwater but it only lasted a few seconds and then all he felt was peace. I hope that perhaps you can know that she could have experienced it this way as well. Blessings to you.

  5. I feel like I could be on the fence with avoidance. I do not avoid people, places or memories, actually I feel comfort in them; however, I’m find that since I live alone & I’m 40 miles from my boyfriend’s family & our friends I’m becoming isolated or withdrawn with my thoughts & feelings. I feel like I am trapped inside my own head with all the thoughts & emotions that I can’t shut off. I have co-workers & a best friend where I live; however, they never got to know my boyfriend, so I think it is hard for them to want to talk because they didn’t know them. I also have tried to share my feelings with Steve & my mutual friends, like the fact that I’m struggling every minute of every day; however, I get the typical response ‘it will get better with time”. I can’t find a purpose or meaning for my life. I went through the steps that you described right after passed, then the emotions hit & in October I felt things getting easier; however, a little drama from one of his family members has thrown me into a tail spin where I feel like I’m drowning & that I am all alone.

  6. Question… How do we start to “allow ourselves to actually feel it, face it, and be present with it in the moment and in the future”, if the grief is very bottled and very old? I’ve gone through 8 years of avoiding, and an unexpected trigger brought it all up to the surface. I didn’t know/want to cope with it then, and I don’t know now. Old mechanisms of directing my attention elsewhere jumps right back. Should I face the trigger?
    Can you point me to an article or episode of yours that might set me on the right track?
    Thank you.

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Hey DJ,

      There are a number of ways you could go about trying to start processing your grief. Just coming here and learning more about grief is a good start. It sounds like you have the awareness to know you’ve been avoiding, so if you are able to identify the ways in which you’ve been doing this then the next step is figuring out what to do about it. Generally, if you know you’ve had a problem coping with triggers and avoidance in the past, then perhaps the best course of action is to try and face them. If you don’t face them you will spend the rest of your life running away and being tormented by them. That being said, it’s normal for things to remind you and make you sad years later but if it’s still causing you intense distress then you are wise to try and start dealing with this.

      Therapy is always a good place to start, but you may choose to take smaller steps like for instance, would you consider journaling about your experiences? You can writing about your memories, allowing yourself to remember them and to feel the emotions related to them. Perhaps journaling about the triggers would help – what was it? how did it make you feel? why do you think it made you feel this way? This may not be something you think you would realistically do, but it might be worth a shot.

      Eleanor

  7. i like you podcasts but I think you could include all beings because losing a beloved pet is every bit as painful and the grief as devastating as losing a beloved human.

  8. Thanks Eleanor…Having things around me that belonged to my loved ones gives me a lot of comfort. It’s the way that I keep them a bit in the present. Reminders hurt much less for me than feeling like they were never here.

  9. Thank you! This is helpful, as always.

  10. OMG…I am the daughter who lives among my parents’ relics…Is that a bad thing? 🙂

    • Profile photo of Eleanor Haley

      Not necessarily! Not if this is how you want to live. Of course many people surround themselves with memories and objects that remind them of deceased loved ones. It’s only a bad thing if you wish to let go of, give away or put away some of these objects but because of fear you aren’t able to over a long period of time. Or if you feel as though holding on is keeping you stuck. Otherwise, I’m all for keeping reminders! My house is full of them.

      • Dear Eleanor,

        on the comment about living among your loved ones belongings.. I feel both, fear to let go, as well feel as though holding on is keeping me stuck, and frustrated. As well also feel annoyed, and cannot be reminded of memories, listen to specific music, go to places etc.. the grief, pain kicks in again. Feel very exhausted at times … how can one go on, try to be happy at times even, and the loved cannot anymore. All is lost and gone forever. .. Sending my love and thoughts to all you here. Thank you.

Leave a Message

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Disclaimer

WYG provides general educational information from mental health professionals, but you should not substitute information on the What’s Your Grief website for professional advice. Please check out terms and conditions here

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

National Suicide Prevention Hotline - 1-800-273-8255

PhotoGrief

Share Your Snapshot

Grief In 6 Words

Submit a Story to Us

What's Your Grief Podcast

Listen to our podcast

top
X