Avoidance is the idea that a person will not deal with a situation. Grief avoidance is a defense mechanism that keeps one from getting in touch with his or her true and honest feelings. There are five of these grief avoidance patterns that you may see in yourself or in someone else.
The person who falls into this category believes that if grief is postponed, put on hold for a while, it will go away. The procrastinator doesn’t realize the need to grieve a loss or feels that grieving is a sign of weakness. He will do this later when the time is right. Unfortunately, as the delaying occurs, the grief builds within and typically comes out in a variety of ways that do not best serve the needs of the survivor. This avoidance/denial may lead to a depressed state and a long-term depression is not good for the survivor.
When someone has felt the pain of losing a loved one to death, he should direct his feelings of grief toward the deceased. The person who doesn’t do this is a displacer. The displacer is the person who consciously, or unconsciously, directs the feelings of grief toward an object other than the deceased. He needs to direct the grief toward an object and will do so. The object, however, may be a business associate, friend, spouse, or companion. A survivor may be habitually agitated over insignificant occurrences, or may complain excessively. Although usually unaware of this displacement, there may be some conscious knowledge of what is happening.
The person who uses this avoidance pattern takes the feeling and emotions that were present during a significant relationship prior to death and gives them to another person building a relationship hastily and prematurely. It is usually an unconscious replacement effort on the part of the survivor. He is using the substitute as a way of avoiding the grief and acknowledging the death.
Remember, there are “3 C’s” to follow for re-entry to the world post-grief. They are: companionship, commonality, and commitment. There is no time limit for simple companionship, but if it is to be a good companionship, it must be based on those things which you have in common (commonality), and, finally, when you are ready to commit to a relationship, it shows a trust has developed and the search(ing stage) is over.
This person works at decreasing the amount of grief that is felt. He realizes the grief feelings, but through various rationalizations waters down those feelings. The Decreaser looks to God for support and usually gets it. He also tries to convince himself as well as others that he is not so critically affected by the loss as one might think or expect. Onlookers and acquaintances will see and hear someone who acts and talks as if he is doing fine and is back to his normal routine.
Rationalizations and dilutions are fine. Who doesn’t go through a day without a few really good rationalizations? But, they cannot be used to decrease the importance of grief.
Hypochondria is not to be laughed at, nor dismissed lightly. To the hypochondriac, the symptoms felt are very real and very perplexing. The pain felt in the left side of the chest is not merely a symbolic broken heart, it is as real to the survivor as a bleeding cut.
What happens to the survivor in this situation is that the feelings of grief are changed into very real physical symptoms. These symptoms can range from minor complaints to severe inhibiting disorders called: “Somaticization Disorder.” Somatic (referring to the body) disorders can be multiple, vague complaints with no physical reason. The pain and discomfort, however, are very real to the survivor and should not be dismissed lightly.
Here are five examples of the grief avoidance patterns discussed above. Read each example and identify the pattern it represents.
(1) Joe was devastated when Margie died. He never thought he could find someone like her until he met Judith. Even though he only knew Judith five weeks, he was sure this was love and she should be his wife. They were married within six months but he didn’t understand why he felt something was missing, as if there were unfinished business on his part.
(2) Jim came to support sessions complaining about the incompetence of his employees. These were the same people who, only a month earlier, had been so competent that they kept the company running smoothly while he was grieving. Now everything they did ended in some difficulty that only he could repair. It didn’t matter how trivial or important. He was the one to make things better.
(3) Ben and Jack were all set to have the headstone put in place at their father’s grave. But when the date for setting the headstone arrived, Ben had arranged a business trip at the same time. It’s not that he didn’t want to be there; he just couldn’t (face it) yet. Maybe in another month.
(4) Mack went to his internist after his brother’s death. They had been very close and the death had forced Mack to re-evaluate his own physical wellbeing. He had begun to feel a numbness in his left arm and was worried that it was a precursor of something much worse. After exhausting all medical tests there was found to be no biological, neurological, or physical cause for his pain.
(5) Janice was heard to remark: “My volunteer work keeps me so busy. I’m glad to be back in the mainstream, helping others. I’m fine. Who would have thought I’d be doing this only two months after David’s death?”
Answers to Exercise Five
1. The Substituter
2. The Displacer
3. The Procrastinator
4. The Hypochondriac
5. The Decreaser
Canine, J. D. (1990) I Can I Will: Maximum Living Bereavement Support Group Guide. Birmingham, Michigan. Ball Publishers.