Coping   Mechanisms     
  Managing the stress of grieving  

It begins with the news, be it anticipated or totally unexpected:

*The solid knock upon the door,
The man in uniform,
The polite enquiry as to name,
The solemn tones.

*I’m sorry to inform you that ...
That neither sun will shine, nor birds will sing,
That weeds will grow and grapes will rot upon the vine,
That for you reprieve awaits a second death,
Your death.

What next? Grieving is extraordinarily stressful, and the human mind readily adopts various coping mechanisms to help alleviate this stress. To do so is natural and is to be expected.

However, people who are grieving – and those around them – sometimes think that these coping mechanisms are abnormal and inappropriate, and these mistaken views can exacerbate existing levels of distress. In this section, we’ll examine the different ways in which people adjust their behaviours so as to assist them in coping with the ramifications of death:

If you have any questions, comments, or would like to discuss your own experiences of coping with death, then you can do so here.

    Denial of Death

A very common coping mechanism, the first to be put in place, is denial [1]:

*They said you died,
It is not true,
I don’t believe that man in blue.

It is human nature to welcome good news with uncritical acclaim, but to be sceptical of those dispatches that bode ill. The denial – the feeling that it just can’t be true – that sometimes follows the news of the death of someone important in your life is just an exaggerated form of this natural scepticism: rather than believe in something that will change your life forever, that will cause such enduring misery, it is better to hold back, to wait for more evidence. The following words from the song Tears of an Angel express very well this sense of disbelief:

*Cover my eyes,
Cover my ears,
Tell me these words are a lie.
It can’t be true
That I’m losing you,
The sun cannot fall from the sky.

It is only when the news has been constantly repeated by family and friends that it begins to sink in, to be accepted.

Another reason for the delay in acceptance can be the lack of any pre-existing mental paradigm for responding to this news. The subconscious mind needs to take some time to mull it over, to examine the possible responses. Until these subconscious deliberations have been completed, the death is “off-topic” as far as the conscious mind is concerned; it’s simply not on the agenda. The nursery rhyme style of the first verse above is particularly apposite, for the mind on hearing of something as overwhelming as a death can revert to a childlike method of processing the information – the denial becomes a child’s false hope.

If you’re dealing with someone who is in denial then it’s important to proceed gently. Trying to force the issue and make the person recognize the death as being real might make you feel more comfortably, but it can do more harm than good.

The person in denial will have a rationale as to why the person who has died is no longer around. For example, one client of mine, whose husband had died overseas while serving in the army, persisted in the belief that he had not died but was still on tour, and would return one day. In these circumstances, there is no need to either agree with or deny the explanation provided. The best approach is to provide a supportive environment and to engage the bereaved in other aspects of life, to encourage new interests. When the time is right, when the environment offers a sufficient degree of support and solace, then the denial will either end suddenly in a moment of catharsis or it will slowly fade away.

    Avoiding People

It’s perfectly natural if you feel a desire to avoid people. Interacting with people can often bring on those accustomed waves of physical distress [1], the very feelings you are trying so hard to avoid.

Well intentioned visits from friends and relatives – with their inevitable expressions of sympathy and enquiries as to your state of mind – can become a form of torture, “He was such a nice man. How are you doing?”

If the bereaved rejects your overtures, then you may well be miffed (Dawson’s Creek, Season 5, The Long Goodbye):

*Audrey: How’s Dawson doing?

*Joey: I wouldn’t know. Didn’t want anything to do with me. I thought I’d be able to help him. I thought I would be this incredible resource ‘cause I’ve been there, you know? He didn’t want anything from me. He didn’t even just wanna sit there in silence. He wanted me out of his sight.

Before you open your mouth, ask yourself if you’re trying to help the bereaved or, instead, if you’re really just trying to help yourself? Don’t make the assumption that you know what’s best. Give those who are bereaved some space. Help them with practical issues. If they want to talk about how they feel, or about the person who has just died, then they will. Be supportive, but let them initiate those difficult conversations. If you haven’t been in close contact with them, then ask someone who has been about what they need, or don’t need, right now, and act accordingly.

That grieving mother may seem unaware that you were present at the funeral, she may have put aside your letter of condolence unread, but some months later she may recall your presence, and may read your letter – when the time is right, when she has moved on to a different stage in the grieving process.

    Hostility towards People

When people persist in offering their condolences and, particularly, when they ask intrusive questions about how you feel, avoidance can easily turn into hostility [1]. It’s too soon. You know it’s too soon, and they should know it’s too soon, also.

The following exchange (Dawson’s Creek, Season 5, The Long Goodbye) illustrates the sort of brash, intrusive, meddlesome line of questioning that is invariably unwelcome:

*Stranger: Dawson. You probably don’t remember me, Dawson, but I’m Susan. I’m an old friend of your mother’s from college.

*Dawson: Right. You’re my mom’s Deadhead friend.

*Stranger: That’s right. Uh, tell me, are you dealing with your grief?

*Dawson: Uh ... I’m dealing.

*Stranger: How are you dealing with it?

*Dawson: Um, not to be rude, but I ... I don’t know what you’re talking about.

*Stranger: Where are you channeling all the feelings you’re having about your father’s passing?

*Dawson: Um ... you know, not to be rude again, but I really don’t have the time or the luxury.

Unfortunately, the social conventions that surround death are squarely aimed at establishing solidarity within the wider social group to which the deceased belonged, and they are poorly adapted to meeting the needs of those who have been particularly close to the deceased.

If you’re close to the person who has been bereaved, then you can do the greatest good by acting as a buffer between that person and the wider family and social group. When appropriate, you can explain to this group that the bereaved is too ill-disposed to put in a personal appearance and you can accept, and pass on to the bereaved, the obligatory expressions of condolence, sincere or otherwise, that the death has occasioned. In doing so, you can benefit and assuage the concerns of both parties.

    Feelings of Guilt

One of the most common experiences following death is a feeling of guilt [1]: “It’s my fault!” or “It’s your fault!”

Some people have a strong need to find a reason why the death has occurred, and an equally strong need to allocate blame to some tangible entity. While this entity can sometimes be someone else, we seem to have a particularly strong predisposition to blame ourselves (Dawson’s Creek, Season 5, The Long Goodbye):

*Joey: It’ll get better. I promise.

*Dawson: That’s good. Any, uh, advice on how I should deal with the fact that my father’s death was almost entirely my fault?

*Joey: What? How do you figure that?

*Dawson: Come on, Jo. Think about it. If I hadn’t come back and laid all this on him, none of this would’ve happened.

*Joey: Dawson, look at me. You father died in a car accident. There was nothing you could do to stop that.

*Dawson: That’s not entirely true, Jo. That’s, I mean... first off, if I hadn’t showed up that morning, my mom wouldn’t have made me breakfast, which means they wouldn’t have run out of milk, which means my dad wouldn’t have had to drive to the store that night so Lily would have some in the morning.

*Joey: That’s crazy.

*Dawson: Don’t tell me what’s crazy, Jo. For all I know, my dad was driving along that night, pissed, having some argument with me in his head which caused him to take his eyes off the road just long enough to ...

We have a propensity to create these long-winded causal chains working back from the event that caused the death until we end up with something that we did, or didn’t do. We readily dismiss the fact that there are innumerable other scenarios that at any instance of any day could result in someone’s death.

Death often awakens in us a form of magical thinking that is otherwise absent from our daily lives and thought processes. The purpose behind blaming ourselves seems to be a magical expectation that by assigning “responsibility” some kind fate will go back in time and reverse the result. As a child we remember all those occasions when we misbehaved, when our parents were cross with us, and when owning up led to reconciliation. When faced with death, we may re-engage with this child’s false hope, the expectation that by asserting our “guilt” everything will be all right.

Even though we may readily acknowledge to ourselves that this type of thinking is irrational, we can still fell drawn to it, and may need to persist with it for a while as we work our way through the grieving process (Dawson’s Creek, Season 5, Text, Lies, and Videotape):

*Dawson: Right. I guess ... I guess that wasn’t all that true either, was it?

*Psychotherapist: Well, the brain works in mysterious ways.

*Dawson: So, am I just lying to myself?

*Psychotherapist: Dawson, losing someone you love ... losing them suddenly, with no logical explanation ... the brain isn’t set up to cope with something like that. And along the way, a few lies here and there ... it’s probably par for the course. The only problem is when you start convincing yourself that the lies are true.

    Reluctance to Move On

The type of behaviour that is most likely to elicit hostility is the inevitable demand, issued by a well-meaning but insensitive friend or family member, “It’s been a long time now. Shouldn’t you be moving on.”

Admitting that you are moving on is particularly difficult, for, as long as you are grieving, the person you are grieving for is, in a sense, still alive. As one of the emails I received put it, “It’s only when I stop grieving for dad that dad actually dies” – prior to that he remains in a strange, chimerical state of suspended animation.

Moving on can also occasion strong feelings of guilt: you may have a strong sense that the measure of how much the deceased meant to you is in the length of time that you spend grieving.

Moving on can seem disrespectful to the memory of the dead. It may feel that by moving on the connection will be lost forever, as though the person had never existed, had never been part of your life: “It would be like marching into the graveyard and vandalizing dad’s tombstone.”

    Idealizing the Deceased

We have all noticed the effect:

*No event more swiftly transforms sinner into saint than death.

It’s a regular occurrence in the news: one day a pair of prominent public figures are verbally abusing each other in the most vitriolic manner; the next, one of them has died, and the rhetoric has changed so that now only the deceased’s accomplishments receive prominence, while his failings fade away into obscurity.

Whether it stems from a form of magical thinking that foresees some form of ghostly retribution or from mere social convention, we rarely speak ill of the dead. It is therefore hardly surprising when those close to the decreased are excessively lavish in their praise and can find no fault [1].

It is no kindness to seek to redress the balance and offer up a more nuanced assessment of the deceased. The bereaved will, most likely, automatically adjust his or her viewpoint as the grieving process progresses, and even if not then what matter – in a world where only misfortune is newsworthy, the occasional overly romanticized recollection of the past can do no harm!

    Abandoning Associations with the Deceased

What happens when a couple breaks up? Well, there is a strong tendency for each individual to dispose of all objects that are associated with the former partner: gifts received and reminders of activities performed together either get returned or end up in the garbage.

Occasionally, the same type of mental distancing can occur following a bereavement [1]. Reminders of the deceased are just too painful: so, in addition to disposing of the deceased possessions, you might decide to move house, to sell your furniture, or to reduce contact with those friends that you and the deceased once shared in common. Out of sight, out of mind. Out of mind, then less chance of those waves of emotional and physical discomfort.

    Adopting the Deceased’s Interests

Another surrogate mechanism for interacting with the deceased is just the opposite: to start adopting, or to engage more frequently with, the deceased interests [1]. For example, a young woman told me that her deceased husband had been very fond of tennis and used to play every week at a local club. She wasn’t particularly interested in tennis, and used to play only occasionally. However, after her husband’s death, she began to play regularly, going to the club on the same day of the week and at the same time as her husband had always done.

Engaging with the interests of the deceased in this manner can provide a sense of continuity. Having someone in your life is about more than just the physical presence of the person concerned; it’s also about being wrapped up to a greater or lesser extent in that person’s lifestyle, interests, and passions.

As an outsider looking in, an increased preoccupation with the lifestyle of the deceased may seem unnatural, even unhealthy, but it can play an important part in the grieving process. As time passes, this preoccupation will most likely decrease and new interests will develop, so it’s not helpful to try to obstruct those who are bereaved in their attempts to maintain this sense of continuity.

    Companionship of the Deceased

If you’ve had a close day-to-day relationship with someone, then it’s quite natural to seek to continue that relationship after that person has died. For example, you might dream about the deceased most nights, and you might carry on imaginary conversations with him or her during the day.

Some of us as children had imaginary friends, with whom we played and conversed. We told them about the things that worried us and asked them for their advice. As we grew up, this propensity to engage with imaginary friends faded away, but the capacity to do still remained, and in the aftermath of a death it can be reawakened, with the deceased playing a vivid role as a new imaginary friend. The following words from the song Tears of an Angel express very well the fierce determination to maintain contact with the deceased:

*I won’t let you fly,
I won’t say goodbye,
I won’t let you slip away from me.

There is nothing to be alarmed about if you find yourself engaging with the deceased in this manner. However, if this engagement starts to intrude on your ability to function in a normal manner, then it’s time to consider counselling.

What constitutes “in a normal manner”? For example, suppose you’re alone and discussing some issue with the deceased when someone enters the room; if you feel pressure to continue your conversation, then the imaginary relationship is beginning to interfere with your normal functioning. However, if, in these circumstances, you can readily stop the conversation, and engage with the person who has just entered the room then that’s fine, for you are controlling the imaginary relationship – the imaginary relationship is not controlling you.

The warning sign to look out for is any suggestion that you must choose between the two realities, rather than being able to maintain them side by side. It can be a difficult choice:

*Little one, don’t let go.

You might remember the existential dilemma faced by Andie McPhee in the TV series Dawson’s Creek following the death of her brother, Tim, and how Andie (Season 2: Reunited) and her mother (Season 2: Full Moon Rising, The Reluctant Hero) made very different choices when it came to letting go – the following clip might jog your memory).

If you’d like more information on the issues that can arise when talking to the deceased, then this article on crossover therapy might be helpful.

    Imitating the Deceased’s Behaviour

Have you found that people around you are becoming very anxious, even “freaked-out” by your behaviour? If so, then it’s possible that you may have changed certain aspects of your behaviour so as to imitate that of the deceased – particularly behaviour that the deceased exhibited at or close to the time of death [1].

For example, here’s an extract from an email I received: “I noticed my brother looking at me in a nervous manner. When I asked what was wrong, he said that when I was dismissing things that he said I had started moving my hand using the same gesture that my wife always used to use. It was creeping him out. I told him I wasn’t. But then a few days later I caught myself doing just that. Am I going insane?”

No, you’re not going insane, though those around you may think so. It’s not that common, but adopting some aspects of the behaviour of the deceased seems to be a way of dealing with loss. It’s an extension of holding an imaginary conversation with the deceased. In the example above, the man said that he regularly imagined having a conversation with his deceased wife, and if she disagreed with what he said he would imagine her performing her characteristic hand gesture. By imitating that gesture, himself, during the imagined conversation he was adding to the reality of the interaction. In time, he began to use the same gesture when interacting with other people.

We all have an innate tendency to unconsciously adopt, on occasion, some of the behavioural patterns exhibited by other people – particularly people who interest us or impress us in some way (what psychiatrists call introjection). The intense focus on the deceased can, in some circumstances, cause us to adopt some of his or her mannerisms using our innate tendency for introjection [2]. These mannerisms may be temporary or permanent. To other people it may seem odd, even spooky, as though the deceased had returned from the grave and had, to some extent, taken over our body. However, it’s just another means of processing grief, even though it remains a rather unusual one.


[1] Lindemann E., “Symptomatology and management of acute grief”, American Journal of Psychiatry, 1944, 101(2), 141-148.

[2] Volkan V. and Showalter C.R., “Known object loss, disturbance in reality testing, and ‘ee-grief work’ as a method of brief psychotherapy”, Psychiatric Quarterly, 1968, 42(2), 358-374.