You know those emergency exit announcements they make whenever you’re in a crowded place?
Ladies and gentlemen, please note the exits are to the front and rear of the auditorium. Upon activation of a fire alarm, proceed calmly to the nearest exit.
You know the ones I’m talking about… You hear them all the time and they’re always the same. I mean, who even really listens to them?
Introverts like me, that’s who!
I need to know how to GET OUT in case of social awkwardness, exhaustion, or discomfort at all times. So imagine how I feel when, days after my mother dies, I find myself trapped—staring down an endless line of black dresses and dark suits; a veritable who’s who of my family’s past, all waiting to do the awkward hug-or-no-hug tango.
Towards the beginning of the line, I see the heads start to tilt in sympathy and I imagine people like my high school English teacher and old whats-his-name from down the street doing neck stretches in the lobby. God, I’m such a horrible person. These people are here to support me and all I want to do is find a place to hide. I briefly contemplate the types of places I could find to hide in a funeral home and immediately abandon the idea.
Generally speaking, I’ve embraced my introverted nature—but times like these, I wish I could be anyone but who I am. I feel stupid and embarrassed. My palms are sweaty. My attitude is horrible. I understand the need for ritual, but forcing grievers to engage in small talk with hundreds of people? Now that seems like a form of torture that should be reserved for PTA luncheons and college orientations.
I take solace knowing I’m not alone in my misery; my father, brothers, and sisters all share similar temperaments. They fall differently along the introvert/extrovert continuum, but I know—like me—they would give anything to spend rest of the evening at home.
In Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, she notes that ⅓ to ½ of Americans fall somewhere on the introverted end of the spectrum. No, this doesn’t mean ½ of all Americans are homebody loners. Introverts are social and have friends just like anyone else. The difference is they are more likely to opt for low-key situations such as spending time one-on-one or with small groups of friends, co-workers, and family members.
We are all different of course, but Cain notes a few typical characteristics of introverts:
- Drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling
- Have a tendency to focus on analyzing and making meaning of events going on around them
- Draw energy from being alone, as opposed to extroverts who draw energy from socializing with other people
- Feel drained after spending time around large groups of people
- Prefer one-on-one conversations and spending time with smaller groups of people
- Enjoy less stimulating situations and find crowds of people to be arousing
- Tackles tasks slowly, deliberately, and one at a time; often have a knack for concentration
- Are less drawn to wealth, fame, and status than their extroverted peers
- Listen more than they talk
- Think before they speak
- Often express themselves better in writing
- Dislike conflict
- Dislike small talk but enjoy discussions about topics that interest them
- May be highly “sensitive”
Grief is hard for everyone, but introverts face their own set of challenges after a death. Starting with the fact that after a death, it sometimes seems like you’re on stage and everyone’s watching to see what you do. How are you coping? How are you holding up? At the wake, at the funeral, at the coffee hour afterward; 100 sets of eyes all fixed on you, waiting for their opportunity to shake your hand and pay their condolences.
After a death—and before, in the case of terminal illness—grievers are surrounded by people asking the same questions and offering the same standard platitudes. Grievers are forced to chit chat about everything from the weather to (groan) their feelings. Not wanting to seem ungrateful or impolite, they engage with everyone—on the phone, at the funeral, at work, in the grocery store, on the internet, in their own home. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it took certain introverts a long time to get out into the world after a loss, if for no other reason than because they know they will encounter people. When my mother was dying, I felt like everywhere I went I was asked for the latest update. I was hesitant to go anywhere for fear of having yet another awkward conversation. I mean, why not stay home until at least the third degree of separation forgot I was in mourning? My friends knew where to find me.
My very basic advice to introverts dealing with grief is to accept your nature and go easy on yourself. You will likely have to endure the rituals associated with the funeral and, for a while after the death, people are probably going to want to check in, call, drop by, and stop you on the street. Acknowledge these things may be draining for you and plan to give yourself a little extra space and time. Also, don’t be surprised if the coping mechanisms that worked for your extroverted friend—like widow/widower happy hours and support groups—don’t feel as right for you! You may feel more comfortable talking to a friend or family member who’s had similar experiences, connecting with an online community, writing in a journal, or reading things like books or grief blogs.
As for those hoping to support an introvert, I will forever be grateful to those closest to me because they had the foresight to follow my lead. Introverts and extroverts are often good complements to one another, but they can also have a heck of a hard time understanding one another. We often talk about how people cope differently depending on their loss, temperament, personality, and circumstances; introversion is just one more variable to take into consideration. It stands to reason that introverts may be less interested in having a constant stream of people around for support because they need alone time to recharge, remember?
Not an introvert? I bet you can still kind of relate. Never fear though, our team is one-half extrovert so go on over to the subscribe bar and sign up to receive posts straight to your inbox.