Does Staying Busy Get You Through Grief or Lead to Avoidance?

Several days after my daughter died from the injuries she received in a car crash, I received call from a friend. She told me her son had died in a car crash when he was 17 years old, something I didn’t know. Her call and advice to “stay busy” touched my heart.

Since I had experienced loss before, I understood the advice, but it makes grief counselors cringe. Becoming too busy can turn into grief avoidance. When my friend called I had no inkling that two more family members would die. I didn’t know I would find a way to “stay busy.”

Five years have passed. Today, I have a better understanding of this approach to grief reconciliation. I think the approach hinges on how you stay busy. Many find comfort in the activities of daily living: grocery shopping, cooking, washing dishes, vacuuming, dusting, and doing laundry. Simple tasks can be soothing and give your mind a brief respite from grief.

I chose to stay busy with writing, a logical choice because it is my occupation. However, the focus of my writing shifted from health and wellness to grief recovery. Instead of avoiding grief, I learned all I could about it. I printed out hundreds of Internet articles, bought books on the topic, and wove this information into articles and books. Accomplishing writing tasks — identifying points, putting them in order, finding the right words — made me feel better.

Grief hadn’t robbed me of my ability to write.

A childhood lesson also helped me. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, the man who lived next door to us died. His wife, a retired nurse, responded to this loss by becoming excessively busy. She was always rushing from one place to another and rarely had time to talk with my mother, who was one of her best friends. Mom worried about her and rightly so, for our widowed neighbor married again in haste, only to abandon the marriage a week later.

Turning to my occupation for comfort sounds like a risky decision, but it wasn’t. My husband and I were guardians of our twin grandchildren and they kept us involved in life. Being a GRG, grandparent raising grandchildren, made it impossible for me to overdo writing. I managed to find a middle pathway between busyness and excessiveness.

I also paid attention to my grief work. In his book, Living When a Loved One has Died, Rabbi Earl Grollman says we should grieve NOW (in caps) and not suppress our feelings. “If you do, your feelings will be like smoldering embers, which may later ignite and cause a more dangerous explosion,” he writes.

This explosion may be delayed or complex grief, things that are best avoided. Later in the book, Rabbi Grollman refers to the “medicine of time.” He goes on to explain that what you do with time is important. For me, writing day after day, month after month, year after year, was the medicine of time in action.

If your grief is new and raw, please watch for signs of avoidance. Let the simple tasks of daily living comfort you. Find comfort in hobbies and helping others. Most important, find a middle pathway between occupying your mind and excessiveness. This path will lead you to a new life.

Copyright 2012 by Harriet Hodgson

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Harriet Hodgson

More Articles Written by Harriet

Harriet Hodgson has been a freelancer for 38 years, is the author of 36 books, and thousands of print/Internet articles. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists, Minnesota Coalition for Grief Education and Support, and Grief Coalition of Southeastern Minnesota. In 2007 four of her family members died—her daughter (mother of her twin grandchildren), father-in-law, brother (and only sibling), and the twins’ father. Multiple losses shifted the focus of Hodgson’s work from general health to grief resolution and recovery, and she is the author of eight grief resources. Hodgson has appeared on more than 185 radio talk shows, including CBS Radio, dozens of blog talk radio programs, and dozens of television stations, including CNN. In addition to writing for Open to Hope, Hodgson is a contributing writer for The Grief Toolbox website, and The Caregiver Space website. A popular speaker, she has given presentations at public health, Alzheimer’s, hospice, grief, and caregiving conferences. Hodgson’s work is cited in Who’s Who of American Women, World Who’s Who of Women, Contemporary Authors, and other directories. For more information about this busy wife, grandmother, author and family caregiver, please visit www.harriethodgson.com.

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  • Great article Harriet. There is such a fine line between staying busy to help us grieve and staying busy to avoid our grief. I loved the smoldering embers quote, so apt and so very true.

  • Sarah Foster says:

    Wonderful article! I also loved the smoldering embers quote. Witnessing both ends of the grieving spectrum, from staying so busy you can’t even stay in contact with your friends to the point where your grief has overtaken you, it gives a new meaning to that fine line between comfort and avoidance. As you mentioned, taking comfort in performing the daily tasks, continuing in your hobbies, and allowing your friends to help comfort and get you through the grieving process is the better option. The death of your loved one and the grief following do not take away your ability to live your life, it just makes it appear to be harder. Allowing yourself to feel these emotions, process them, and working through them ultimately leads to a better life.

  • Thanks for your comments Maureen and Sarah. In my experience, finding the moderate path between being too busy and busy enough takes time. Thankfully, I managed to find this path.