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John James, founder of The Grief Recovery Institute

John W. James

Founder of The Grief Recovery Institute®
Co-Author of The Grief Recovery
Handbook & When Children Grieve

Articles & Media

Am I Paranoid, Or Are People Really Avoiding Me?

The simple answer to the question posed in the title of this article is, “No, you’re not paranoid, people really may be avoiding you.”

Even though you may feel like you’re slogging though emotional quicksand, in some respects you might have a heightened awareness of what is going on around you. In particular, you may sense people are avoiding you or changing the subject—away from the cause of your grief—if and when they do talk with you. As a result, you may feel as if you are being evaluated, judged, and criticized.

You may wonder why people who usually talk with you will avoid you or change the subject when you have been affected by a death. In part it’s because most of us were socialized to isolate when we were sad: “Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.” So, if it’s true that we need to grieve alone then it follows that others do also.

The problem is the idea that we should grieve alone is not correct to begin with. What is accurate is that grieving people need and want an opportunity to talk about “what happened” and about their relationship with the person who died.

In our books and articles we talk about the “killer clichés” that are not helpful to us when our hearts are broken. The majority of those clichés are comments that urge us to feel some way other than the way we feel. Most of them begin with “Don’t feel bad,” and then continue with a reason that you shouldn’t. As in, “Don’t feel bad, he or she is no longer in pain.”

When people avoid you because of your grief, it is the non-verbal equivalent of the idea that you shouldn’t feel bad, even though someone important to you has died. By avoiding you or not mentioning the death, the friend thinks they are helping you “not feel bad.” The reality is that by not talking about the one thing that is in the forefront of your mind and heart, they cause more hurt than if they bring up the subject of the loss.

How can I go on without them? Fear is the most normal and common response to loss. Whether it is a spouse, a parent, a child, or anyone else important to you who has died, your brain and heart ask: How can I go on without them? That fear-based question is a healthy emotional reaction to loss. However, in our society, we are not encouraged to express our fear. Everyone wants us to be strong, instead of human. So we cover up our fear and isolate our feelings from others.

On the other side of the equation, we have been led to believe that grieving people want and need to be alone. We are told to “Give them their space.” While it’s true that grievers sometimes want solitude, they also want to be treated normally. But since we were never taught how to talk about feelings of grief, we are afraid to talk to our friends when they have experienced a loss. Therefore our own fear will cause us to avoid grievers altogether or not to mention their loss. Look at the combination we just outlined.

Grievers often avoid others because they are afraid and then isolate themselves. People avoid grievers because they are misinformed and afraid they will hurt the griever by bringing up the topic of their loss. No one is talking about what is most important to the griever. The fact that grieving people need and want to talk about "what happened" and about their relationship with the person who died, doesn’t mean that every griever will want to have a detailed conversation with every one they meet. We just want to make sure they have a chance.

If you are grieving, we suggest you bring up the topic of your loss so those around you can see that you are willing to talk about it. If you are the friend of a griever, instead of avoiding the subject of the loss, at least acknowledge it. A simple comment like, "I was sorry to hear about your loss," can be very helpful to a griever who may be questioning their own sanity because no one is even mentioning their loss. You may be surprised at the heartwarming conversations that follow.

© 2022 John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute®. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this and other articles please contact The Grief Recovery Institute at info@griefrecoverymethod.com or by phone, 800-334-7606.

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    April 2017
    Indianapolis, IN - April 7-10, 2017
    Princeton, NJ - April 7-10, 2017
    Reading, Berkshire, England - April 21-24, '17
    Denver, CO - April 21-24, 2017
    Vancouver, BC, Canada - Apr 28-May 1,'17
    San Francisco, CA - Apr 28-May 1,'17
    May 2017
    Seattle, WA - May 5-8, 2017
    Dallas, TX - May 5-8, 2017
    Milwaukee, WI - May 19-22, 2017
    Torquay, Devon, England - May 19-22, '17
    Regina, SK, Canada - May 19-22,'17
    Los Angeles, CA - May 19-22, 2017

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