‘Tis the Season for Grief-Related Social Anxiety

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Part of my self-care regime is reading The Onion articles whenever possible.  I don’t know what it is, their headlines just speak to my personal sense of neuroticism and social awkwardness.

Some may have laughed at the above headline (I certainly did), but for those who’ve recently experienced the death of a loved one, this is actually a pretty common coping skill.  ‘Tis the season for grief-related social anxiety; a time when even the most socially competent grievers are known to have reservations about human interaction.

Grief just seems to make everything more difficult; especially the holidays with its roles, traditions, reminders, and memories.  As someone who’s grieving, you know that the next few months will be tough. Your grief will be triggered and you don’t always know where or when it will happen.

While many will experience social anxiety this holiday season, grievers have the added pressure of presenting themselves as though they’re not being held together by silly putty.  Now, I wholeheartedly believe that people should allow themselves to experience their feelings when they happen, but I also know that dragging everyone down at the work holiday party and ending up grist for the family gossip mill are very real and valid fears.


Your Interpersonal Mindset:

Before discussing any specific anxieties, I think it’s important to consider your interpersonal mindset going into the holidays.  Many mourners have a natural inclination to socially isolate after a death and the holidays, with its good cheer and merriment, may make this option even more enticing. On the other end of the spectrum, some people throw themselves into social situations as a coping skill and/or distraction.  Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, it’s important to try and participate in the things you value (i.e. the things you know you’ll regret missing) while also making time for self-care.

Being that the holidays are cause for togetherness, I’d also like you to consider how you generally feel about people these days.  I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me that you’ve heard an insensitive comment or two (or ten) since your loved one’s death and that at least a few of these comments hurt very deeply.  It would be understandable for these negative experiences to color your interaction with people going forward, but I hope they don’t.

After a few bad experiences, it’s common to start expecting the worse of people, but it’s also just as plausible to believe that otherwise good people sometimes just don’t know what to say.  Will people make the mistake of saying something hurtful or, sometimes worse, nothing at all?  Heck yes, they will, and although it seems ridiculous for responsibility to fall on the bereaved, it’s often up to you to find patience, understanding, and forgiveness in the absence of actual malice.

That being said, there are people who will repeatedly cause you pain.  If this happens, please don’t allow them to spoil everything and everyone for you. Instead, either choose to provide them with feedback about the ways they have hurt you (if they don’t know, they’ll never change) or learn your lesson about them and move on.  Here is an article about how to best utilize and understand your support system after a death.


The Constant Questioning:

After a death, it sometimes seems like the only way to avoid constant comments and questions from family, friends, and community members is to go out in disguise.  People believe that if they don’t ask you how you’re doing or acknowledge the death that it will seem as though they don’t care.

Some people like being asked questions, it shows them that people care and gives them an opportunity to talk about their loved one and how they are feeling.  Other people feel as though the questions are (a) awkward and (b) a painful reminder at a time when they were trying to hold it together.  It is normal to feel either way and it’s okay to feel different ways at different times. If the constant questioning starts getting to you over the holidays, here are a few things you can do:

  • Decide what you’ll say ahead of time:  Like our friend above, determine a stock answer that is polite, easy to remember, and won’t make you cry in public (if you don’t want to cry in public).
  • Create an exit plan:  Knowing how to leave a gathering if things get to be too much can help relieve anxiety. If you are worried about being rude, tell those who might be hurt up front that you are grateful for the invitation but that you might have to slip out a little early.
  • Bring a friend:  Choose a friend who you know will be good at buffering these conversations.
  • Go small:  Opt for smaller gatherings where you will be around people you are comfortable with and who treat you the way you currently want to be treated.
  • Opt out or find an alternative:  When you determine that the weight of people’s questions will certainly outweigh the benefit of participating in an event, either opt out or find an alternative to participating. For example:
    • Instead of attending a busy religious service, go to one at a different time or at a different place of worship
    • Instead of shopping at the local mall, buy your gifts online this year
    • Instead of attending the busy tree lighting, have a few friends over to trim your own tree

You are single when you used to be a pair:

Those who have lost a partner often feel like a third wheel when they participate in social get-togethers.  Being around other couples, or people who’ve always known you as a part of a couple can make you feel especially alone and isolated.  I’m not sure there’s anything I can say to make you feel this any less, but perhaps the following suggestions might make it easier to be social despite the fact that half your heart is gone:

  • Bring a friend:  Although no one can fill your loved one’s absence, a friend might help you feel less alone.
  • Ask yourself whether your being a third wheel is fact or perception:  When a person has really strong feelings and assumptions about a situation, they are likely to jump to conclusions and try to engage in mind-reading.  What evidence is there that people think you are a third wheel?  Do you care if this assumption is true or is feeling like a third wheel bad enough in and of itself?
  • Spend time with other widows and widowers: Investigate whether any widow/widower get-togethers are held in your area.  If none exist, consider having one.
  • Enjoy yourself:  Give yourself permission to smile, laugh, and enjoy the company of others.  Some might feel guilty enjoying themselves when they are grieving their loved one, but both of these things can (and will) happen at the same.

You are afraid you will lose control in front of others:

People often fear that experiencing intense emotions will cause them to lose control.  This is why people who’ve experienced a specific hardship or trauma often go to great lengths to avoid triggers and reminders.  My experience with grief tells me that you will inevitably end up crying in the Target sock aisle and that this is an experience you will survive.  Yet I know the prospect of being emotional in public causes many people to worry.

First off, I think you should not only assume that you will come into contact with triggers but you should deliberately allow yourself to.  The holidays are so full of tradition and reminders, if you attempt to avoid them I fear you’ll end up stuck in your room through January.  Complete avoidance will not help you cope with your grief, learning to experience and tolerate painful emotions will.  Here are a few suggestions to help you feel more in control of these emotional experiences if they do happen:

  • Practice feeling your emotions in private:  This sounds odd, but if you’re someone who worries that you’ll lose control of your emotions it may be helpful to prove to yourself that you won’t.  For some this might mean intentionally facing the triggers and memories they’ve been avoiding in private; others might simply allow themselves to experience feelings when they arise as opposed to stuffing them away
  • Force yourself to stay until the emotion subsides: Emotions almost always subside.  Even though you may be embarrassed, by sticking through the experience you will (a) prove to yourself you can survive being emotional in public (b) make it easier for you the next time (if there is a next time).
  • Get the crying out of the way:  If you’re worried about becoming emotional in front of people close to the loss, then get the crying out of the way. Acknowledge your worries and allow yourself to feel emotions when they come, others will understand and it will help to ease the tension.  You might even decide as a group to say a few words or have a moment of recognition up front.
  • Plan an exit strategy:  Again, it’s hard to feel trapped when you know you can always leave.
  • Avoid alcohol and other substances:  Although these things seem helpful in easing social anxiety, certain substances can actually make prone to fits of emotion.

What social anxieties and strategies can you share with our readers?  Leave a comment below.  Also, subscribe to receive posts straight to your inbox (especially if you’re worried about surviving the holiday season).

December 10, 2018

1 responses on "'Tis the Season for Grief-Related Social Anxiety"

  1. Excellent and timely article!

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