Avoidance vs. Reminiscing: When Styles of Grieving Clash

When faced with great loss or the threat of loss, humans naturally default to different styles of grieving. Those who use what I call a reminiscing strategy manage their personal distress by talking rather incessantly about whatever or whoever they’ve been painfully separated from. There is a strong desire to verbally review and emotionally relive their memories of the relationship that was so important to them. Often the memories being relived are positive ones, and the reminiscing person finds it very comforting to go over these things again and again and again to a live audience. They usually prefer to talk with people who also had a significant connection to whoever or whatever was lost, because they feel this helps them form richer reconstructions of fond memories. Since their processing style feels so helpful and depressurizing to them in the moment, they find it confusing and upsetting when some of the friends or family members that they’re trying to engage with react with anger and keep trying to shut them down.

Now while grief gives some people an overwhelming desire to talk, it gives other people an overwhelming desire to not talk about whoever or whatever is being missed. This second group naturally defaults to what I call an avoidance strategy. When this second strategy is in use, the grieving person often feels extremely threatened by other people pressing them into talking about the relationship that has been lost. They often feel a strong aversion towards participating in “trips down memory lane”–especially since those discussions typically focus on positive memories. Instead of constantly discussing the subject of their grief, avoiders desperately wish the topic could be temporarily banned. They want to go about life as normally as possible, and be allowed to sort out their intense feelings privately and at their own pace. They do not want to be monitored, poked, and prodded by reminiscers into discussing their feelings.

Now when a family member dies, the entire family system gets plunged into grief processing. The larger the group, the more likely it is that there are both reminiscers and avoiders present. As these two styles start trying to express themselves, ugly clashes often occur which increase everyone’s stress and cause a lot of miserable fights. The avoiders desperately want to escape the reminscers’ incessant yammering about a subject that the avoiders find extremely painful. Meanwhile, the reminscers feel deeply wounded by the icy hostility they are receiving from the avoiders. Unless some helpful strategies are put into place, the natural clashing of these two legitimate styles can easily result in permanent damage to close relationships. Fortunately, you don’t have to just sit there and watch things slowly fall apart as everyone claws at each other. There are some helpful steps you can take, starting with gaining a deeper understanding of why these two styles of grief seem so incompatible.

Assessing What Has Been Lost

Whenever a significant relationship comes to an end, your subconscious automatically begins a review of the impact that relationship has had on you. Your subconscious is the part of your being that stores all of your memories in a massive mental database which only it has direct access to. As your subconscious pulls memory files up, it controls which of your other elements can also access that memory. If it allows your soul to also see the memory file that it is reviewing, your soul will then give its own response to that memory as well. What makes grief feel so intense is that you get bombarded with two of your elements (your soul and your subconscious) giving their individual responses to what is usually a large stack of memories. The longer the relationship lasted, the more memories there are to plow through, so the longer this exhausting process of internal reactions drags on. The more significant the relationship felt (for good or bad reasons), the more intense the reactions will be from both of your elements, and this results in a greater sense of internal fatigue.

Now these kinds of intensive reviews require a lot of resources to perform and your subconscious doesn’t tie up precious resources on projects unless it feels those projects are very important. So why does your mind feel this reviewing process is so important? It has to do with how your mind views your relationships.

From your mind’s perspective, engaging in relationships with other humans is the only way to get some of its core needs met. At the same time, human relationships can be dangerous sources of pain and injury. Relationships are always a mixed bag, with deeper levels of intimacy always increasing the threat of pain.

By the time a relationship is terminated, due to death or some other form of severe separation, your mind has already categorized that relationship as being predominantly negative or positive. Positive relationships are ones that your mind views as being a reliable source of getting some of its critical needs met (such as the parent who emotionally affirms you). Negative relationships are ones that your mind views as being more painful than helpful (such as a spouse who abused you). While every relationship has positive and negative elements, the longer they go on, the more they tend to be viewed as being predominantly helpful or harmful.

Now when positive relationships end, your mind feels like the head of a manufacturing company who has just lost one of his key suppliers. There is an urgent need to assess exactly what needs were being met by that specific supplier so that your mind can anticipate how its daily operations will be impaired by that supplier no longer delivering. It is this in depth assessment of which positive resources used to be supplied that triggers the reminscer’s need to verbally go over and over their positive memories of the person who they’ve lost.

Every relationship is a mixed bag, and while some minds begin by focusing on a positive review, others start by focusing on negative aspects of the relationship they’ve been cut off from. Naturally the mind is very relieved by the thought of losing someone who acted more like an enemy than a friend, but when your mind privately expresses its relief, your soul will often react with moral shaming.

It’s quite common for human souls to feel that it’s morally wrong to ever celebrate the death of another human. Naturally your mind will celebrate when the person you lost had a long history of knifing you. But as your mind tries to express its valid relief over that threat leaving your life, your soul reacts with horror due to your mind’s “inappropriate” attitude. Here is where strong feelings of guilt can well up as your two elements argue with each other (see “I’m Glad She’s Gone”: The Right Way to Respond to Your Own “Wrong” Reactions to Death).

A focus on the negative aspects of a relationship often fuels the avoidance style of grief processing. Once your mind views a relationship as predominantly negative, it feels upset by listening to other people wax on and on about what a wonderful person so-and-so was. Such a vast difference in experiences can easily trigger feelings of jealousy (“Why couldn’t Dad have loved me as much as he did my sister?”) or anger (“It’s so unfair that I got stuck with such a mean spouse when marriage is supposed to be a joy”).

Because it’s commonly considered “very inappropriate” to talk negatively about someone who has recently died, minds who are reviewing the negative aspects of a painful relationship often feel they are being punished if they try to express their legitimate feelings about the person who is gone. At the same time, reminiscers who want to relive positive memories feel very threatened and offended by someone “tainting” those memories with negative comments. An intense need to focus on the positive naturally clashes with an intense need to focus on the negative, and the simultaneous pursuing of these two different priorities is one factor that results in so much tension among grieving people.

Executing New Strategies

Now your mind doesn’t just sit around in a perpetual state of reviewing. As it shuffles through its stack of memory files, it is also strategizing about the best way to deal with the changes being thrust upon it. Every relationship is a mix of good and bad. Losing the good is very stressful because it creates a need that might prove very difficult to fill. After all, it’s not like you can just pop out and quickly secure another mother figure who will nicely fill the shoes of the parent who you adored. When your mind feels that it’s going to be impossible to find a good replacement for the person you’ve lost, it might decide to reach for a tool that all human minds use quite a bit in life: denial.

Suppose you are stuck in a position where you are miserably hungry, yet you have no access to food. If you sit there dwelling on how hungry you are, you’ll only make yourself feel worse than you already do. But if you try to ignore how hungry you are by intentionally focusing on other things, you’ll have a good chance of at least temporarily reducing your misery. When you choose that second strategy, you’re practicing a form of denial. Despite it’s bad reputation, denial is a very clever defensive strategy that can be quite helpful in getting you through tough times. Ironically, some degree of ongoing denial is needed to maintain good mental health, as there are many realities about life which would totally depress us if we sat around intentionally dwelling on them. But too much denial, or denial that is being applied in the wrong ways can be very destructive.

When Sarah’s mother dies, her mind performs a rapid assessment of that positive relationship. It then concludes that Sarah’s mother provided her with essential emotional resources that are going to be extremely difficult to live without. To protect itself from becoming overwhelmed by the fear of trying to press on without those critical things, Sarah’s mind refuses to accept the fact that her mom is truly gone. At her mother’s funeral, Sarah confidently tells everyone that her mother is still with her, and is now playing the role of her guardian angel. Sarah talks with her mother throughout the day, and feels that she receives clear communications from her mother in her mind. This common response to death is an example of one way that minds try to manage their stress of losing positive resources that they feel are critical to their well-being.

When reminiscers are also practicing a form of denial, they can become extremely upset by anyone trying to jolt them out of it. Rejecting the reality of separation is just one possible focus of a mind’s denial strategy. In other cases, minds will try to deny the fact that a relationship was a mix of good and bad, and instead pretend that it was entirely one or the other.

Once Sarah’s mind creates the fantasy of her mom being her guardian angel as a means of denying the reality of the separation, it needs to see her mom in an extremely positive light. After all, guardian angels are supposed to be sweet, loving, kind figures–not moody beings who say hurtful things or fail to show up. To protect the fantasy that is now acting as a buffer between herself and intense pain, Sarah talks about her mother in only positive terms. As time passes, Sarah’s exaggeration of her mother’s positive qualities grows more extreme until angel mom has very little in common with Sarah’s actual mom.

Mental fantasies are like sandcastles that keep getting licked by ocean waves: they need constant patching up if they are going to remain standing. To help keep her own fantasy intact, Sarah frequently talks about her mother in very positive terms. She also becomes very upset by anyone mentioning any of her mother’s negative qualities. In real life, Sarah’s mom was a human, and all humans have positive and negative traits. But Sarah’s mind feels very threatened by anyone talking about her real mother’s very real flaws, because seeing her mother as she actually was weakens Sarah’s fantasy of her sweet angel mother. Remember that all of this started by Sarah’s mind assessing that relationship and concluding that her mother provided her with positive things that were essential to her well-being. Sarah’s mom also did a lot of hurtful things over the years, but Sarah’s mind is intentionally burying those memories right now because it has a far greater crisis on its hands. In Sarah’s current situation, she doesn’t have a relationship with anyone who can provide her with the kind of emotional affirmation and support that her mother did. The loss of the good is a serious crisis which her mind is now obsessing over and trying to find a way to manage.

So what about avoiders? Are they also prone to practicing denial? Yes, only in their case, they usually try to deny how affected they were by the relationship that was lost. Minds that use an avoidance strategy are often trying to ease themselves through a difficult period by chipping away at that memory review process in short bits. While reminiscers want to perform their mental reviews out loud and often for long stretches at a time, avoiders want to keep theirs private. Avoiders also tend to want to hold off on even getting started with their review process until after their life circumstances have settled down. When there are still family members to console, funerals to plan, and wills to execute, avoiders often feel it’s foolish to waste their limited internal resources on draining memory reviews. So they try to postpone this process as long as possible, often telling themselves that they’ll get around to sorting out their own feelings after things have settled down. The problem is that avoiders can get so addicted to the emotional numbness that comes with severe suppression that they never do allow themselves the chance to really examine their true feelings about the relationship they’ve lost. But so what? Isn’t that a clever move on their part? Who wants to go through a draining internal review if they can get out of it, right?

It’s vital to understand that ignoring mental stress will never make it go away. Instead, using suppression for too long always results in greater stress. It’s rather like you tossing a wet towel into a closet because you just don’t want to deal with laundering it at the moment. Days later you open up the closet and discover a bunch of mold growing. You could have gotten away with tossing the towel in there briefly, but by leaving it so long, you’ve now got a whole new problem on your hands. This is how it works with mental stress as well. The sooner you deal with it, the faster you’ll be able to resolve it.

Helpful Interventions

Now there is so much more to say on this complex topic, but I want to switch now to giving you some practical tips on how to help avoiders and reminiscers in the early stages of grief processing. Without intervention, these two styles naturally clash with each other, and those clashes can rapidly escalate into very painful situations. To help you avoid that mess, here are some useful things to try:

Group Like Styles Together

When possible, encourage reminiscers and avoiders to hang out with their own kind. If someone has to do a store run, for example, send either two reminiscers or two avoiders–try not to send one of each or they will likely have a very stressful trip.

When possible, make a space where avoiders can go to escape the chattering of reminiscers. For example, if your daughter and father are avoiders, send them off to watch a movie in a separate room while your husband, son, and mother reminisce together in a different part of the house. Putting physical space between these two groups can go a long way towards reducing arguments. Remember that reminiscers desperately need to talk, but avoiders find reminiscent conversations very painful to listen to. The goal is to try to help both groups avoid additional pain while they get their own needs met.

GIVE THE REMINISCERS THERAPEUTIC PROJECTS

Their desire to keep reviewing their favorite memories of the person who has died makes reminscers great candidates for doing sentimental art projects, such as putting together photo albums, collages, or scrapbooks that are focused on the person who died. Encouraging them to do these kinds of projects together can be a very therapeutic and stress relieving exercise for them. It will also help them stay occupied while the avoiders get a much needed escape.

GIVE THE AVOIDERS BUSYWORK & PERMISSION TO DO SOMETHING FUN

Because avoiders are desperately looking for anything to distract their minds from focusing on their own feelings, they will find it a relief to run errands, zone out to movies, or go do activities that have nothing to do with focusing on death. When possible, choose avoiders to run errands. When you run out of chores, encourage them to go do an activity together without making them feel bad for “having fun” in a time of grief. Remember that avoiders are also heavily impacted by the loss that has happened, they’re just managing their stress in a different way. While reminiscers are helped by focusing on the dead person, avoiders are helped by being given permission not to focus on the dead for a while.

Encourage Avoiders to Talk to a Counselor

Avoiders use suppression because they are afraid of being overwhelmed by the intensity of their own feelings and of being punished for expressing those feelings to others. They can have an especially difficult time discussing their more intense feelings with family and friends, especially when some of those feelings are negative and causing them to feel guilt. Here is where a counselor can be especially helpful. The private, one-on-one style of a counseling session is quite helpful for avoiders, as they can feel in control of when they talk, how long they talk, and what they talk about. Plus, a good counselor can help avoiders have highly productive conversations very quickly, which reduces how much time they feel they have to “wallow” in stressful feelings. Whenever possible, encourage your avoiders to talk with a counselor who understands how to deal with grief and guilt. If they do agree to talk to a counselor, don’t press them for details about how their experience was afterwards. Simply ask if they felt it was helpful or not. If they did, encourage them to keep talking with their counselor.

Remember that avoiders do much better by keeping their grief processing as private as possible in the early stages. Once they feel that they are in a more stable place emotionally, they will be more willing to talk about their feelings. But in the early stages, they will often feel more comfortable talking to a counselor who they know will keep their comments confidential. Talking to a stranger often feels like the only safe way to air feelings of guilt, anger, and relief that friends and family members will likely be upset by. It is vital that avoiders have an opportunity to share their honest assessment of the relationship they’ve lost, and to get help with altering any traumatic beliefs that they are in the process of forming. Their tendency to use severe suppression right away makes it especially important for them to get help with unpacking their feelings before too much stress builds up on them. A counselor who understands suppression and knows how to gently work with minds who are in a defensive state should be able to help an avoider start to debrief some of his stress as it mounts, which will help the mind keep more of its resources on hand. The more effort a mind has to put into suppressing intense feelings, the less resources it has left to do it’s daily functions. This is why it is so important to help avoiders keep their internal stress levels from climbing too quickly.

Listen for Evidence of Traumatic Beliefs in ReminIscING Discussions

The advantage of the reminiscing style is that emotional stress starts getting vented right away through all of the talking. But if you hear reminiscers start making fear or guilt laced comments, it’s best to encourage them to talk to a counselor. Comments like these indicate that the mind (or soul) is starting to form traumatic beliefs which could result in some severe stress down the line:

  • “I keep thinking that if only I hadn’t asked him to do that errand for me, he wouldn’t have been in that accident.”
  • “I feel so bad that our last words were angry.”
  • “I don’t understand why being with me and raising our kids wasn’t enough motivation for him to keep living.”

Getting private grief counseling is a good idea for anyone who is grappling with the death of a friend or family member, but I realize that it’s not always practical to shuffle everyone off to the counseling office, which is why I’m suggesting who should be given priority when counseling opportunities are limited. All avoiders and those reminiscers who start voicing fearful/guilt-ridden concerns should be encouraged to talk with a professional counselor sooner rather than later.

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