Making time to grieve

Dr. Neimeyer,

While grieving of a dear one is very personal, how would you suggest to stop my friends who keep doing different things to interrupt me during the time that I want to be stay alone? As obvious as it is, I need my time to feel sad, my time to internalize being left alone, my time to visualize ahead how to move forward, etc. It is totally bizarre that I am living in an environment where I have to bear the stress from others, people or things, and I can’t do anything to get out of it. I appreciate your response.


Dear Kathy,

One of the difficult things about grieving is its paradoxical nature. On the one hand, we need time to mourn, to reckon with the weighty emotional reality of loss, to reorganize our bond with our loved one along less physical lines, and to seek meaning in the experience, painful as it is. On the other hand, we need to find ways to reengage a changed world, sometimes even reinventing it by exploring new goals and roles to replace those that once presumed our loved one’s living presence. And psychological research demonstrates the down side of neglecting either of these dimensions through an exclusive engagement with the other, as both a ruminative preoccupation with the loss and anxious avoidance of reminders of it both are associated with more complicated bereavement. There is even a contemporary theory, the Dual Process Model of Coping with Bereavement, that captures the “oscillation” we engage in as we shift back and forth between orienting to the loss and restoring our lives.

So, what to do? Seek balance by giving attention to both. You seem to know instinctively that you require uninterrupted time to simply process your grief, honor your loved one, and sort through the significance of the loss for you, without the distraction of the usual social world. At other times, however, it can feel important to step back into life, engage essential chores and tasks, and nurture the relationships that you will also need to live into a fuller future. However, signaling to others when you would welcome this contact, and when you need stillness and privacy, can be a tricky thing. Here are three simple ideas to make this a bit easier.

· Schedule “grieving time.” Set aside a time to spend with your grief, perhaps journaling, meditating, sorting through your loved one’s cherished possessions or writing an AfterTalk letter. This is your time, when you have turned your phone to silent, posted a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, and can let anyone else in the house know that you won’t be available for the next hour or so. Schedule this on your calendar, just as if you were making an appointment with someone you care about–like your loved one, or yourself.

· Send a clear signal. In Brazilian steakhouses there is a simple signal that tells the waiter when to come around and offer another cut of meat, and when you want to take a pass: You just turn a coaster to the green side to signal that you are ready for something, and to the red side when you’ve had enough for now, and just want to be left alone. Without this visible marker of your receptivity you’d be interrupted every 5 minutes! Think about how to send a similar signal to well-intentioned friends and family. Perhaps you could toggle between two different voicemail greetings: “I’m not available right now, but if you leave a message, I’ll get right back to you,” vs. “I’m taking a little quiet time right now, but will be available again after 8 p.m. (or tomorrow afternoon).” In other words, feel free to signal your receptivity to social contact or conversation, but also to claim the time you need for yourself.

· Negotiate “together time.” Unless your friends are just busybodies, they are probably motivated to reach out to you by love and concern. But obviously they are guessing badly about when to do so, and so are either in the uncomfortable position of either feeling like intruders or being rebuffed. Respecting their wish to the helpful and yours to have some privacy, try negotiate with them a good time to get together on terms that work for you both. For example, rather than simply putting them off or, equally bad, guiltily saying yes and resenting it, try saying, “I so appreciate your reaching out to me at this hard time. I’m feeling like I need a bit of quiet time for the next few days, but would love to meet you for coffee (or movie, or lunch) sometime next week. What time might work for you?” Alternatively, surprise them by taking the initiative, and scheduling something with them at a time you expect to feel more ready. By actively negotiating a balance of time for your loss and restoring your life, you can find your own rhythm in moving forward.

Dr. Neimeyer

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