Q: Since my husband died, people keep telling me that I should “keep busy.” I’m exhausted from trying to do that. Is it really helpful for me?
A: No. As a griever, your world is probably upside-down as you try to adapt to the changes caused by the death of someone important to you. If you were not a “busy” type person before the death, trying to be busy while your heart is broken can only exhaust you, or worse. Even if you’re normally very active and productive, your grief may slow you down and redirect you from your usually busyness. Let that be okay with you.
Keeping busy is one of the most incorrect and often dangerous pieces of unsolicited advice that negatively affects grieving people. Don’t let others push you into actions or activities that you’re not ready to do.
We’ve seen people turn themselves into human cyclones trying to follow that incorrect guidance. We’ve seen them exhaust themselves and worse. Keeping busy is really a hidden extension of another dangerous myth, the idea that time heals all wounds. The unspoken idea is that if you can just keep yourself busy and divert yourself from what you’re feeling, then another day will go by and time will heal you.
Keeping busy doesn’t complete what is left emotionally unfinished for you any more than time can heal an emotional wound. Keeping busy creates an illusion of well-being. It distracts you from the feelings connected to the relationship you had with the person who died. But it also acts to bury those feelings out of sight where they can come back and haunt you later. It’s reasonable to presume that any feelings you keep bottled up inside are not really gone, they’re just invisible to you.
Caught in a swirl of activity, “busyness” merely sidetracks you from the emotional impact of the death. As painful as grief can be, it is not healthy to bottle up the natural emotions caused by the death. In addition to the most obvious, that it can cause exhaustion, keeping busy can also have dangerous emotional and physical consequences.
Compounding the issue is the fact that it’s very hard to concentrate in the days and weeks – and sometimes even longer – following a death. That alone makes it difficult to stay focused on any job or task and puts you in danger of making physical errors or having lapses in judgment, not to mention a heightened risk of auto accidents. Substituting busyness for more effective ways of dealing with the emotions caused by your reaction to the death can cause major problems in many life areas.
A Griever’s World is Upside-Down
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with being busy and productive. However, it’s not logical advice for those who are dealing with the emotions caused by the death of someone important to them. It’s important to recognize that the death changes everything for grieving people. Their world is upside-down.
One of the most difficult aspects of grief is adapting to the wide range of emotions caused by the physical end of our relationship with the person who died. The death ends everything we had been familiar with, and carries the probability that we will experience a roller coaster of emotions.
With all that going on, it doesn’t make sense to try to change how someone typically does things. Some people are naturally very busy types while others are more laid back. Advising someone who’s not normally very active to “keep busy” asks them to change their basic lifestyle at a time when their world is upside-down. And even for those who are normally very active, the idea that keeping busy would be valuable in terms of the emotions of their grief just doesn’t make sense.
The Best Advice – Don’t Give Unsolicited Advice!
One of the most maddening things grievers report to us is the amount of unsolicited advice they get from well-meaning friends and family. Unsolicited advice robs people of dignity. It is especially awkward to receive such advice when a griever is trying to deal with a mountain of emotions. Near the top of the list of the unhelpful advice they receive is to “keep busy.”
The best advice we can give is “not to give advice to grieving people.” Grieving people may need your ear when they need to talk about how they feel, but they don’t need to be told to keep busy or any other ideas that would remove them from their emotions about the person who died. Give them the dignity they need and deserve as they make their way through the emotional quicksand caused by the death.
By Russell Friedman and John W. James
"Yet with all his light and radiance, it was apparent that dark clouds were gathering. He often told his mother that he did not think he was long for this earth, or that he felt his time would be short here. It was as if he discovered that the angels had put him on a short tether, that they did not want him to become too attached to this place."
– NAMI Utah Suicide Survivor
"Death is one of two things... Either it is annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it is really a change: a migration of the soul from one place to another."