The Grief Recovery Institute® (since 1977)
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Bereavement Help: A few reasons why avoiding emotions hurts you
October 14, 2003 by Russell Friedman
"He can run, but he can't hide." That famous expression is attributed to heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis, in 1946. Joe's statement was in reaction to being told that his next opponent, Billy Conn, was very fast and would run around the ring a great deal to try to avoid getting hit by Mighty Joe. In that squared space, oddly called a boxing ring, one can imagine the relentless Joe Louis tracking his smaller, darting prey until the little darter ran out of steam. Some accounts of the actual fight indicate that's pretty much what happened. Might seem odd to start an article on grief and loss with that reference, but it will soon make sense.
In our cumulative 40-plus years of helping grieving people, we've seen thousands of people who've tried desperately to avoid feeling and dealing with their grief. Exhausted, they eventually wound up at our door, much the worse for wear. And that's just the ones who showed up at our door, the real number would be off the charts. The question could legitimately be asked, "Why would people do that?" The answer - even if it seems a bit naive - is another question, "Who would want to feel bad if they didn't have to?" The solution is not quite so simple. Along with other incorrect ideas about dealing with loss, almost every grieving person is advised to keep busy. Ask any widow or widower; ask any grieving parent or mourning child. They all hear keep busy, and variations on that theme, countless times following the death of their loved one. That advice comes from well-meaning, well-intended people who love them and care about them.
What's so wrong with keeping busy?
Keeping busy is, at best, a distraction based on another dangerous myth about dealing with emotional pain. That myth is, Time Heals All Wounds. Time cannot heal an emotional wound any more than time could put air back into a flat tire. Yet grievers are constantly being told that time will fix their hearts. The double illusion is that if I stay busy, then more time will have passed, and therefore I will feel better. When the two false ideas are fused together - the illogic of time healing, and the emotionally counter-productive hyper-activity of keeping busy - the result can only be disillusionment and exhaustion. Unresolved grief is as unrelenting as Joe Louis. It will track you down no matter what you do to try to duck it. No matter how fast you run, you can't go around your broken heart; you can't go over your broken heart; you can't go under your broken heart. You must go directly through it or you will drag the remnants of pain with you forever. Emotional exhaustion is the heavy price you pay when you try to run around your heart. In the end, you can't outrun your heart. You must move toward it no matter how frightening that may seem. It's the only way out of the squared circle of your pain.