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How to Recognize When Someone Is Grieving Even If They Don’t

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The Covid-19 pandemic has heightened our awareness that grief is the natural response to the death of loved ones and the loss of jobs, routines, and even missed events or milestones. Though we anticipate an eventual end to the pandemic, grief for these and other losses will continue to accompany us. Will you recognize it when it appears? In my case, long before Covid-19, my mom’s death when I was a child started a lifetime journey to understand grief, which is the topic of my recent memoir, “The Art of Reassembly.” After Mom died, my family focused on the logistics of life and carried on as best we could. We went to school and work. We managed the house, assembled meals. Surviving was good enough, and we did not express emotions or talk about my mom.

Several years later, my dad remarried, and we embarked on a new story as a new family, pushing grief further into the background. Then, at age 25, I was present at the scene as my friend was injured in an accident on a downtown street. Fortunately, she recovered fully, but I was never quite the same. I cried easily and often for months afterward, and I could hardly eat. My clothes grew loose. Over time I noticed the disproportion of my reaction relative to my friend’s circumstances and how others handled it. Inside, I felt lost and empty as though I were falling through space, a sensation that paralleled my feelings as a child right after my mom died, I eventually realized. The accident had knocked my insides loose, and I could not put them back the same way.

Was this grief? Much to my surprise, I discovered that yes, it was.

Grief is a trickster, always ready to disrupt the plot. Tricksters operate outside rules and conventions in folktales but are hardly simple characters. Often childish, greedy, or even nasty, tricksters can also be friendly, helpful, and wise. Grief contains such contradictory aspects, too. Painful to feel and yet healing. Alternately intense and elusive. Like the trickster, grief shapeshifts according to each person’s personality and situation and holds remarkable staying power. My journey with grief has sensitized me to its sporadic appearances both in myself and others.

Anytime is Fine

As I learned, the timing of a death or other loss does not necessarily correlate to grieving it. If people are not able for whatever reason to fully express emotions when the death or other event occurs, those feelings are held in the body. They don’t evaporate. In addition, for most people, episodes of grieving also simply recur, looking almost as fresh and new as for a recent loss. It’s common for holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, or other occasions that prompt us to miss our loved ones more profoundly than usual to evoke renewed grief—acknowledging and accepting these upticks of emotion as normal grief goes a long way to ease the experience. Here are some things to pay attention to.

Anger and Irritability

Grief that surfaces in an activating form often shows heightened anger and irritability. Do you notice that your friend or colleague gets testy more easily or is short with others for no apparent reason? Or what do you observe about your reactions? For me, the pressures of parenting young children often escalated my temper because I was awash in grief for my mom. As a result, I yelled at my kids more than I would have liked.

Currently, as businesses grapple with staffing and supply challenges, employees and patrons alike are showing signs of distress. A recent survey found that more than three-fifths of restaurant employees report suffering emotional abuse or disrespect from customers, and nearly half have experienced it from managers. Responding to an uptick in violent behavior on planes in 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration has referred the cases of 37 disruptive passengers to the FBI for potential criminal prosecution. While grief may not be the only source of such aggression, it surely is a significant underlying cause given what we have been through since March 2020.

Busyness

More subtly, another activating form of grief presents as busyness that serves as a distraction, buffering us from feeling uncomfortable emotions. We probably all know at least one person who is always on the go. They’re the first to volunteer when help is needed. They always bring food and supplies. Their social calendar is fully booked. Or perhaps you are prone to this mode of behavior.

Some people are simply extraverted and outgoing, but busyness can easily be missed as a sign of grief because our culture tends to enshrine busyness as a status symbol. It’s regarded as a sign of success to have many commitments. If allowed to continue without regular relaxation, the constant activity could lead to physical symptoms of stress such as insomnia, headaches, heart palpitations, and digestive issues.

Being on high alert for perceived risks – known as hypervigilance – is closely related to busyness as an activating form of grief. Because an individual’s hypervigilance results can contribute positively to many situations, it can often go unnoticed as a sign of grief. The person who plans meticulously, anticipating and preparing for every possible outcome, may simply be super organized. But they could also be channeling unexamined or recurring grief.

I’m well-acquainted with hypervigilance as part of my emotional repertoire related to grief. For example, in my memoir, I write about the lengths I went to ensure my children’s safety and security, especially when engaging babysitters. I often expressed this trait in professional situations, identifying all the possible ways a project could go awry, to be ready for any scenario. I’m known for thinking things through, and I orchestrate effective processes, but my unspoken grief remained inside for many years.

Silence and Distance

By contrast, lurking grief can also exert a quieting reaction. Rather than being activated, the emotions of loss cause the person to withdraw into silence, possibly creating distance from usual pursuits or contacts. If this is a personality change, it would be more noticeable, but it might not in a typically introverted individual. If someone frequently says “I’m just tired” as a reason for declining an activity, if they repeatedly don’t respond to overtures like texts or phone calls, or if they start missing deadlines or letting tasks fall through the cracks, consider whether grief is appearing. Maybe you see yourself in these descriptions too.

Perhaps because I seldom exhibit this grief response, I find it challenging to encounter others. On the other hand, several people in my life are prone to withdrawal when facing difficult emotions, including grief. I’ve had to learn how to navigate this difference in our styles to not become activated and irritable in response.

What You Can Do

When you believe that someone close to you is facing unrecognized grief, the most important thing you can do is attend to your well-being. The more you stay calm, the more beneficial your presence will be to your loved one or colleague.

A simple way to ground yourself is to breathe in normally and then lengthen the exhale, pressing with your lower abdominals to complete a full exhale. Repeat 3-4 times, and you’ll notice a relaxation of your whole body. You can also engage in sensory awareness of your surroundings for a few moments. Without judging or telling yourself a story, just take in what’s around you, the objects and colors, the sounds, the scents, the feel of the furniture or floor that supports you. This practice brings your awareness to the present.

In general, engaging in activities you enjoy is also grounding, getting enough sleep and taking in enough water each day. These grounding techniques will assist you in supporting other people in grief and yourself.

More specific ways to support a person experiencing unrecognized grief will depend on your relationship with them. If it seems comfortable, you could initiate the conversation with a simple observation like, “I’ve noticed that lately, you’ve seemed . . .Is anything bothering you?” If conversation opens, allow space for them to speak of loss if they wish. Let there be moments of silence without rushing to fill them.

You can also offer support without speaking directly, which can be just as helpful, maybe more so. Whether the person is activated or withdrawn, engaging them in outdoor activities such as hiking, cycling, or swimming is helpful. Connecting with nature is especially soothing. If there are activities that they enjoy or have found comfort in the past, those may be beneficial to encourage as well. Keep in mind that if you are unable to draw them out or if their irritability escalates, encourage them to seek the help of a therapist. Either way, your supportive presence, giving space for grief to be expressed, will always be of benefit.