After your loved one died, one of the most frustrating aspects of grief may be watching those around you—it could be your spouse, child, sibling, friend and/or other relative—who appears to have moved on with life, despite the loss. You may have wondered, “What’s wrong with this person?” or “Maybe this person didn’t care. Maybe he or she didn’t love the person who died as much as I thought.” Or “Everyone grieves differently.” We always hear how grief is different for each person; but, really, what the heck does this mean? That’s what this article is about. Let’s look at a number of reasons why others don’t grieve like you.
Crying on the Inside-- Dry Lacrimal Glands
Perhaps you’ve observed that this person has not shed a tear or shed only a few tears after the death occurred. The area located in the outside corners of your eyes is where tears come from. It is called the lacrimal glands. You may know some people whose lacrimal glands secrete at the drop of a hat. They cry about everything: losing their key fob, a gorgeous (or only fair) sunset, the smile of a baby. These are the folks who lead the chorus of criers at most funerals. At the other extreme are those whose lacrimal glands secret few if any tears, whatever the event. Don’t get me wrong: These folks feel bad about what happened. However, the tears just don’t emerge. Some people call this, “Crying on the inside.” Don’t blame these individuals. It’s just how they are wired.
These individuals are grieving. It’s just you won’t know how they’re grieving. Dads whose child has died have shared with me that they stop off at the cemetery on the way home from work where they pour out their grief, pull themselves together, head home, and walk in without anyone realizing what they’ve been doing. Without telling anyone, some people speak with their loved one all the time, sharing the day’s events, saying how much they are missed, and talking out decisions that must be made. The Secret Grief folks are not about to tell you, “Hey, guess where I went today.” or, “Guess who I’ve been talking to.”
Not Wanting to Make Your Grief Any Worse
There is a term called Proxy Grief. After a death, Proxy Grief is what we feel as we watch our loved ones grieve. Knowing that you are watching them, some of your family and friends will attempt to hide their grief to spare your feelings. We often see this with children and teens who appear to be coping in your presence, but grieve when you are not around. To you, they seem to not care or appear to be moving on with life. To them, they believe they are doing this to avoid adding more pain to your existing grief.
As you know, one of the ways to cope with a loss is by denying that it occurred. This can occur in any number of ways: (1) pretending that the person is somehow going to return, (2) avoiding any reminders of the person who died, such as turning off a song that brings memories of the person who died, (3) engaging in self-talk that says, “This isn’t true.” “It’s like a dream.” “I just won’t allow myself to admit this—I just don’t want to think about it.” While you are immersed in grieving the death, this person is fighting the harsh and painful reality of the death.
Delayed Grief and Shock
This reaction is related to denial. A person in shock is going through their daily routine like a robot. This person is numb. They feel little. They get through the day by engaging in routine, automatic behaviors. However, after several days, weeks or even months, the numbness begins to subside and the pain and reality begins to emerge. This is when the real grief begins. Until then, you may wonder why this person has shown little response to the death.
Taking on the Role of the Rock by Emotionally Insulating
Have you been nominated “the Rock” in your family? You probably did not campaign for this position. Nonetheless, you are expected to cry little or not at all. You are expected to be strong. Others rely on you for guidance through the emotional maze of grief reactions. There is a term in Psychology for keeping emotions inside: Emotional Insulation. It’s when you stuff your emotions while pretending all is OK. You say you are not the Rock? Then, who is? At any rate, never forget: Rocks may appear to be doing OK, but they need support as well.
Relationship to the Person Who Died
We each had a unique relationship to the person who died. We all have our favorite people. We have people who thought we were the greatest. Yet, we also have relationships in our life that were somewhat challenging. In some cases the person who died may have previously caused pain to one or more of the survivors. And, you may have no clue about this aspect of the relationship. So, here you are wondering why a person is not grieving and it may be because of the complicated relationship between the two parties.
Introversion as a Personality Trait
We all fall somewhere on the personality scale of Introversion----Extraversion. Although there are exceptions, when faced with a problem, people more on the Extraversion side of the scale tend to prefer to be with others. Conversely, those on the Introversion side tend to prefer working on their grief more by themselves rather than sharing it with others. Again, as with lacrimal glands, this personality trait is just how we are wired.
Perceiving Grief as Weakness/Embarrassment
For people who wish to keep up a macho image, displays of grief after a loss do not fit their self-concept. Displays of grief reactions such as crying, sadness, confusion, and anger may feel shameful or embarrassing.
Fulfilling a Promise
Some people are recipients (I call them victims) of a deathbed promise such as, “Promise me you’ll be strong.” “Promise me you’ll go to law school.” “Promise you will take care of _______.” Following the death of a parent, children are sometimes told, “You are the man (or woman) of the house now” indicating it is time to assume the role of an adult. What a burden for a young person.
The Spotlight Effect
This is the belief that “Everyone is watching me. They are judging how I behave at every step.” While this may be true for a few people, most of us end up amplifying this belief. Following a death those closest to the person who died may feel that everyone is watching how they are (or they are not) grieving or if they are grieving according to cultural standards.
Loved ones often hear the message, “He’s in a better place now.” “You should celebrate that she is now with God (or with spirit or reincarnated).” Later, when the bereaved person begins having feelings of grief that run counter to these statements, the person may have feelings of resentment that God has taken their loved one away, which can then bring up feelings of guilt. For bereaved parents the cliché at the top of their list of worsts is: “God needed another angel.”
Continuing with the belief that our loved one is in a better place, those people who believe this may not experience intense feelings of grief. They may think, “Why should I be sad? My loved one is free from earthly problems and is happy where they are; and I am happy for them.”
Confusing Feelings Around the Loss
Grief is a confusing array of feelings. Because a person has never had this exact loss before, he or she may wonder whether they are “grieving right.” The person may believe that they are “too angry” or not angry enough, crying “too many” tears or not crying at all. As a result, the person may hold back some of their true feelings of grief, leading you to believe that they are grieving little or not at all.
So, there they are: a bunch of reasons why we absolutely cannot measure another person’s grief. People could have just one or perhaps several reasons for appearing to be grieving a little or not at all —take your pick. As you know, there is no way that you can get inside a person’s head and heart to determine the exact amount of grief he or she is experiencing. Think about it: you might have found yourself hoping that other people won’t judge you for how long you grieve. Now that you know a little more about the reasons for people in your life showing little or no grief, can you begin to withhold your judgment?