What Avoiding Grief Looks Like

Written by: Claire Bidwell Smith, LCPC


Published on: March 7, 2024

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Claire Bidwell Smith, LCPC, is a grief therapist and author. Her latest book, Conscious Grieving: A Transformative Approach to Healing from Loss, is out now and excerpted below.

It is natural to experience feelings of avoidance, resistance, and even fear within the grief process. Loss brings stress and anguish to our lives, which trigger our innate fight-or-flight response. But fighting with your grief or fleeing from it will just leave you back in the same place where you began, but even more tired and still scared.

For most of us, loss evokes the sense of danger in distressing and unfamiliar ways. When the world feels different, we feel unsafe. When we do not feel safe, we typically prepare to respond to the danger at hand, which is what usually lends itself to avoiding our grief.

Avoidance is further influenced by a culture that wants us to return to normal functioning as quickly as possible. The outside world is urging us to pick up the pieces and move on, even when we aren’t ready. And listening to these messages will inevitably encourage you to turn away from your grief, often at the time you should most be engaging with it.

Avoiding grief looks like:

  • Denying feelings: Using efforts to block out, restrain, or deny emotions.
  • Withdrawing from situations and environments: Avoiding places, people, and situations that may trigger memories or feelings.
  • Pretending to be fine: Attempting to convince yourself (or others) that you are managing this experience better than you are.
  • Prolonged distraction: Engaging in continuous activities that turn your focus away from grieving, and immersing in activities that help you avoid your feelings.
  • Procrastination: Putting off anything that requires engaging with your grief. This can include funerals and memorials, sorting through a loved one’s belongings, and managing end-of-life affairs.
  • Substance use: Using mind-altering substances as a way to disassociate from the painful feelings of grief, which ultimately leads to anxiety and further life disruption. Substances mask your feelings temporarily, but they will still be waiting for you when you sober up.

Instead of avoiding grief, try:

  • Taking breaks. Engaging with your grief does not mean immersing in it nonstop. Short distractions like hobbies, watching movies, visiting with friends, and a light amount of work are perfectly fine.
  • Scheduling time to grieve. If you live a busy life or are prone to distraction, you can literally schedule time to grieve. Set aside an intentional block of time to journal, talk with a therapist or friend, look through old photos, or listen to music as a way to elicit and engage your grief.
  • Seeking support. There’s nothing wrong with enlisting a professional or a caring friend or family member to help you feel more comfortable and supported while you engage with your grief.
  • Asking for help. Managing tasks such as sorting through your person’s belonging or tackling financial matters can be daunting. It’s perfectly understandable for you to enlist the help of others with these tasks.
  • Seeking treatment. Don’t be afraid to find treatment options for substance abuse or other addictions that are getting in the way of your grief process.

It’s normal to want to avoid the immense roller coaster that grief presents. Anxiety and fear are typical reactions to loss. Fear of crying is normal. Being afraid to fall apart is normal. Worrying that there is too much about your loss to unpack is common. But it’s okay to fall apart when you’ve lost someone you love. No one has ever cried forever. And help and support are always available. Remember, the only way out is through.

Reflect: Make a list of all the ways in which you might be avoiding your grief. Come up with creative ways to replace these avoidance tactics with healthier coping strategies that allow you to stay present to your grief.

Permission to Laugh

Losing someone we love doesn’t mean we lose our sense of humor, and there is so much in life to laugh about. Laughing in grief is normal and even quite common. You may feel surprised the first time you laugh after a loss, but the truth is that humor and laughter can serve as equal parts coping tool and defense mechanism.

Laughing and using humor don’t mean that you aren’t also feeling a multitude of other emotions. We can feel achingly sad and still find things to laugh about. While others around you may be surprised to see you joking or cracking up, only you know what your full, dynamic experience of grief is like.

Some of us use laughter as a defense mechanism, resorting to nervous laughter as a deflection tool in times of crisis. If you find yourself resorting to it frequently as a distraction or as a way of trying to make other people around you feel better, then it might be something to pay heed to and work on. But as long as you are also allowing yourself space to feel other emotions and are continuing to face the reality of what has happened, there is no harm in some nervous laughter.

Laughter and humor hold immense healing power. On the physical side, laughter lowers cortisol levels and fuels us with good chemicals like endorphins and dopamine. Laughter also decreases stress and anxiety, and promotes relaxation. Emotionally, laughter and humor provide respite from other intense emotions and can help us put things in perspective and even feel less daunted by the reality at hand. Laughter is also a bonding mechanism for us with friends and family.

And if you’re not laughing or inclined toward humor in your grief, that’s okay too. However, consider that in the future it may feel good to be able to tap into funny memories and enjoy humorous stories about your person.

Reflect: Consider the role of laughter in your grief process. Have there been times when it has felt good to laugh? Have there been times when laughter has been a way for you to relax and find respite from uncomfortable emotions? Are there ways in which you might bring more laughter into your life?

Excerpted from Conscious Grieving: A Transformative Approach to Healing from Loss by Claire Bidwell Smith, copyright © 2024. Used with permission of Workman, a division of Workman Publishing Co., Inc., a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.



This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.