How An Introvert Might Experience Grief, And What You Can Do To Help
As the holidays approach, my own grief journey has inspired me to break out of my shell and try to help others who might be experiencing a similar pain. There is not much out there on how to help a grieving person (a beautiful exception), or on how an introvert grieves differently. The lack of resources can be very lonely, for everyone involved. If a grieving loved one is introverted, you may not even get signals from them that they are suffering. You can be the person who breaks the silence and helps them talk. I’ve compiled a few insights into my own private struggle, and some of the unhelpful and helpful reactions I’ve gotten from people.
If you or someone you know has recently (or even long ago) experienced a loss, this time of year can bring up an unparalleled ache for missing loved ones. Anyone who has grieved knows that it’s a super awkward time to be experiencing loss. Let’s brave the awkwardness and support each other. (If you or someone you know is not grieving but you’d like to help, you can read this and be ready, or donate to a bereavement or PTSD charity).
Note: I haven’t used names in order to protect loved ones.
A LITTLE BACKGROUND
At this time of year when everyone is focused on good cheer and new starts, for those of us grieving, it can be a painful time. I found this out the hard way when my best friend passed away a few weeks before Christmas last year. For the more reserved people of the world, this grief can feel like a burden to conceal from everyone so as not to dampen the festive mood. The last thing we want, but the thing we most need, is someone to reach out and let us know we can talk about our pain, or even take a bath instead of caroling.
As an introvert, I often find expressing my feelings and thoughts outside my extremely immediate circle almost physically painful. I hate to bring attention to myself and my photography and makeup jobs are really the only time I “put myself out there”. When my best friend died, that same introversion that has formed a protective layer around me became one of the hardest parts of my grief.
When she passed, the crippling loss consumed me, and my need to reach out was overwhelming. Anyone who hates attention will understand that breaching that divide and asking for help is so hard that it almost adds a second trauma after the death. Not only do I have to talk about myself to open up that conversation, but I also have to expose someone else to pain. I hate seeing others suffer and am sensitive to the point where loved ones tell me it’s kind of extreme…and inflicting my pain and the knowledge surrounding the death on someone else is excruciating to me.
My best friend was my closest confidant and my soul sister. She knew me in a way that probably no one ever has or ever will. My husband is my number-one supporter and soulmate, and they made up my whole support system aside from my family. Aside from them though, I rarely truly let anyone in. Before I met my husband, she was the only one who truly knew my inner world and saw all sides of me, including feelings I didn’t want to inflict on my family. We just got each other.
For half of my life, my best friend was the person I turned to in times of immense struggle. She was there for me when I was sexually assaulted at the end of high school. She helped me every step of the way through the fallout, including all our other friends defending the rapist and hanging out with him behind my back. She was also who I told first when I got good news: she was my first call when I got into college, got engaged, got my first real job. She was the one helping me do my makeup on the day of my wedding, making jokes with me. That was us — two against the world. We were with each other through life’s great highs and lows, our worlds inextricable. Until she was extricated from mine against my will.
In this new landscape of my life without her, I have to figure out how to handle new challenges without my soul sister by my side. Our lives were so intertwined that literally almost everything reminds me of her. Losing her has realigned my world and made it very uncomfortable to figure out who to open up to.
THE SURREAL PROGRESSION OF LIFE
The weird thing about grief is that good things still happen and life continues its trajectory. A new dream job writing about makeup and interviewing celebrities I admired, working alongside hilarious and whip-smart women came my way. The first weeks lifted the cloud of grief and a much needed respite of fun and writing ensued. But slowly, as deadlines were added and my schedule became more demanding, the smallest critique on a piece would send me to the bathroom crying in secret.
Grief makes you hyper-sensitive, and I’m already a sensitive person. No one had any idea I was in pain until the day I realized I couldn’t continue a job where I would shake with stress each morning, feeling overwhelmed with emotions and deadlines to the point of hyperventilation. I explained to my boss and co-workers what was going on and was met with a kindness I should have expected but didn’t. In grief, people will surprise you.
OFFENSIVE THINGS PEOPLE SAY AND DO
The thing I have learned about myself through this, if nothing else, is that in my struggle to reach out, my mission is to be sure that the introverts around me will get support from me, whether they ask for it or not. This mission stemmed from the pretty surprising reactions I’ve personally gotten to my grief. While some people have been amazing, others have disappointed. We can do better for each other.
Not many people besides my best friend’s and my family have reached out to me other than strangers or old acquaintances asking how it happened, and I found that reaction so alarming. Sometimes, when I would open up to someone, I would be met with an awkward silence, an exit from the room or even a subject change. Oftentimes, people would just stop talking to me out of awkwardness or not wanting to deal with heavy emotions.
Some people would come out of nowhere after years of silence and straight-up ask how it happened with seemingly no tact or questions about mine or anyone else’s wellbeing. This is very disorienting and upsetting to confront in the middle of an immense loss. Also, if someone in grief does tell you how the death happened but isn’t being public about it, maybe don’t share the details with others.
WHEN NOT TO SAY ANYTHING
If a grieving person is visibly or verbally giving you cues to not say anything or shows you they really don’t want to talk, that would be another time to maybe just let them know you’re there if they ever do, and give them space. Be a presence in their life, and they will come to you. Remind them every so often that you are thinking of them.
No one ever talks about this, so I will just say it: some of us have people that we do not need to hear from. Emails from people who betrayed me after my sexual assault who knew us in high school would reach out, and I would have to cordially answer their inquiries so they would stop emailing me. Their false care for my best friend and me would hurt so much because they think they’re being good people by doing this. Actually, they’re just adding more turmoil to my already fragile world, while making themselves feel better and less guilty for how they treated us in the past. They already caused me (intense, all-consuming) pain in the past, and now they’re resurfacing to give me “condolensces” (but really just want to know how it happened, it becomes eventually clear).
Other people were just those who treated my best friend horribly, and they would reach out as well. I am always and forever going to be on my best friend’s side, and some of these people have some guts reaching out, truly. As an introvert, I find confrontation painful, so I try to take the high road and not explain too much or tell them to go to hell, even if I want to. I try to be nice to people, even those who don’t deserve it. It adds a burden and a one-sided consideration that is just not fair to a grieving person.
If you and the bereaved or deceased were on very bad terms, this is one time where you might not want to say anything. It may be kinder to just acknowledge the loss in your own world, and let the bereaved be in theirs.
I DON’T BLAME THEM, THOUGH
The lack of supportive skills society gives us is very lacking when it comes to death. It leaves the bereaved, especially the quiet ones, in isolation — carrying that grief alone. This is not the way it should be.
I try to be patient with people and remember that not everyone, especially people my age (26 when she passed), have ever experienced this and have no way of even imagining what I’m going through. That helps, but sometimes it really is isolating when people complain about small things while you’re facing the hardest days of your life. But you can’t say anything, obviously, so that makes it even harder.
People act truly weird around you for quite a while after a loss. I tell myself that they don’t know. Hardship will happen as people age. Many don’t experience it until much later in life. I try to think of it as a blessing and a curse. A curse because it sucks to be a rarity, but a blessing because it has made me a much better, stronger, more compassionate person than I ever was.
I thought I had been through hard things in my past, until this happened. Grief realigned everything in me. I will never take anything or anyone for granted again. I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve been dealt. Grief is evidence of love, part of the deal of loving. It is the absolute worst, but we loved and continue to love, even when they aren’t here next to us. I use that to turn my compassion toward those who have not yet grieved, and put myself in their shoes. They just don’t know. It’s not fair to assume they do. We could all do a bit more of that.
INTROVERTS MIGHT NOT HAVE A BIG SUPPORT SYSTEM
Grief is awkward, for everyone. Helping an introvert through a very personal loss is an uncomfortable topic to broach. But we must. They might not be able to say they need to talk. And if they do open up, listen to them. Do not make them regret telling you by shutting down or leaving the room. Chances are, an introvert’s grief has been bottled up and when it’s unleashed, it might be intense. And, their support system might not be that big — the person they lost may even have been their whole support system. We, as fellow humans, need to be brave and face this with them. We should not make them feel like they should never open up again. We need to listen, nod, and show we have heard them and care about them in their struggle. That their grief exists and we give it space to exist. Think of what you would want if you experienced a sudden and traumatic loss, and give that to others.
HOW TO HELP A GRIEVING INTROVERT OUT
I don’t care if your words are unsure — I don’t expect a perfect gesture. Any gesture will help. Silence can be more painful than anything. I found myself wondering a few times about people I expected to reach out who said nothing at all. It made me question if they even cared. More likely they just felt awkward and didn’t know what to say.
Whenever someone reached out, I would feel so relieved and grateful, and moved in a way I never expected. Just someone saying, “What was she like?”, “We’re thinking of you” or “How are you feeling today?” has been so welcome. A big hug goes a long way. Sometimes, I don’t feel like being “cheered up” and just want to cry on someone’s shoulder without feeling like I’m ruining their day. Let the grieving person show you how they grieve, and meet them there.
An acknowledgement that others see your loss, without your prompting, may not be something we should expect, but we do. It’s really not that much to ask, actually. And it may not be comfortable to give, but not that hard to say “I know you are hurting and I am here to listen if you want to talk”. But if you do say it, mean it. Follow through on your offer.
In my isolated moments, I would question if some of my feelings were too intense for others, and that would keep me from saying anything at all. What I desperately craved was someone to rip down that burier and for the burden of opening that conversation to not have to lie with me. Luckily, my husband and my best friend’s sister do open those conversations, and I am so grateful.
As an introvert, I also have a very solitary, hermit-like nature, so sometimes I just need some time to read alone and not have to pretend to be normal, especially during that first Christmas. I know no one was making me force myself to be cheery, but I don’t like attention, so would feel awkward about openly crying during hot cocoa. I would rather just put on my usual personality, even if I didn’t feel like myself.
Sometimes, letting a loved one know that chilling out in their room is A-okay with everyone else means everything. They aren’t bumming anyone out by experiencing pain or wanting alone time. Just that permission and acknowledgement means the world to someone who doesn’t want to “make waves” or ruin another person’s day. Let an introvert know they are supported no matter how they grieve, even if that means retreating to a corner to look at pug pictures on Pinterest. And if they do cry, let them know that’s okay too.
IT’S NOT ALL BAD
The surprising thing about this time is that there are happy times galore and if I do express the truth about my grief, I risk others thinking that my sadness is constant. That is not true at all. It’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Besides missing my best friend, I am super grateful for the amazing people I love and experiences I have — even the hard ones. Now more than ever, I appreciate the goodness in my life, and my life is overwhelmingly good. I am lucky, and I take nothing for granted.
But, grief does have a place in that tapestry, and when it strikes it shouldn’t be something to hide in order to make others comfortable. That’s not fair for anyone, because it also robs my loved ones of a chance to be there for me. It’s a hard lesson but one I am gradually learning.
In my grief on the day I found out, I needed to hear my best friend’s sister’s voice. I called her and we cried as I sat, life unhinged, on a balcony in LA. Since that day, she and I have become close in a way I never thought I would be capable of again. We are helping each other through this horrible loss. Her mom and an old friend of ours from high school have become some of the most dear people in my life. Same with my husband’s sister. Grief brought us closer. I will never be okay with this loss, but I am grateful for the lessons it has taught me and the people it has bonded me with. In all its mess, awkwardness and anguish, beauty can come out of loss.
My descriptions are limited and I still stutter as I try to break out of my shell and let people into my world, even if it’s a place that is not pleasant sometimes. Grief isn’t pleasant for anyone, but we can make it easier on each other by reaching across the “hush-hush” divide.
THIS SEASON, WE CAN HELP EACH OTHER
In this knowledge, I have reached out for help, and will reach out to others in their own grief.
I’m finding a richness to some of my relationships since this new practice of mine that I never anticipated. Opening up a conversation about loss is hard, uncomfortable, but so necessary and cathartic. It’s still not easy for me, but I believe that my best friend would want this for me, and for others in pain.
This holiday season, let’s be there for each other. It is a time dedicated to love, after all. Grief is just another expression of love. Yes, let’s be grateful and have fun, but let’s also help those suffering during this time. They’ll be glad you said something — trust me.