Apathy. I often write about different emotions in this blog. Grief is so complicated and the anger, guilt, sadness, yearning, questions and confusion that come with it can make it an endless cycle of feeling. Grief can hurt so much because never have we felt so much. There can be a sense that suddenly we’ve been turned inside out, so that we’re made of nothing but nerves that can be pinched at any moment, even by the slightest trigger.
But grief is constantly changing shape, and for some grievers, at some point in their journey comes an entirely new feeling…and what’s so scary about it? That in some ways it’s not feeling at all.
Indifference. Listless. Disinterest. Unmotivated. Lacking concern.
Apathy is very common in the grievers I talk to and yet it’s so rarely addressed. It will look different from one person to the next, and the reasons may vary as well, but some examples of apathy in grief can include the following:
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed: I think this may be almost universal amongst those who have had a loss, especially in the beginning. While we talk about self care and the importance of finding healthy diversions, how many times has a griever found that the things and activities that once brought them joy, peace, or comfort, no longer do? It only adds to the ways a griever feels they’ve changed, and makes the life they once knew feel that much further away.
- Apathy as a means of avoiding guilt: This one may seem less common, or at least not as evident, but I have spoken to countless grievers conflicted over the idea of moving forward. What does that mean? What does that look like? In trying to rejoin life and society in some way or another there may actually be moments of contentment. A funny movie, a really good dinner with a friend. Unfortunately these respites are too often followed by guilt and the feeling that maybe the griever shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy any part of a life that doesn’t have their loved one in it. So an alternative (that, by the way, isn’t always a conscious choice) is to pull away from potential joy or contentment and settle into not feeling anything instead.
- The feeling that maybe nothing really matters: This isn’t the same as losing interest in activities. This is more like losing interest in the world around us in general. Other people. Their problems their concerns. Even our own problems and concerns that filled our life before – work, and chores, bills and obligations. What’s the point? Who cares? While not sweating the small stuff is great advice when life is good, the griever can take this to a whole new level and sweat nothing. Ever. Because now that their loved is gone it may seem in retrospect that they were the only thing that ever really mattered all along. And now all of this, and whatever is left…what’s the point?
- Apathy as self-preservation: Compared to other ways apathy can manifest, this one may actually be more of a choice, or at least a decision. Bottom line, grief hurts – a lot. So in an effort to never ever hurt that much again a griever may decide to close the door to their heart. To put up a protective wall, to harden it some, or decide that they just will not allow themselves to be so vulnerable to the pain of grief and loss again.
- When the tears stop and the well runs dry: For some, apathy comes when they’ve run through every emotion of grief and there’s simply nothing left to feel, but empty. A griever will always miss the one they’ve lost. They will always miss the person who is gone and they will always wish they were here instead. But what comes on the other side of the tears? As painful and heart wrenching as active and intense grief can be, it does offer a tangible feeling of loss. Something to hold on to, something to connect to. When there’s no tears left a griever may find themselves a little lost without the odd comfort and familiarity they provide. So to put it another way – while grief never goes away, what comes after the grieving?
What’s probably hardest about apathy is that the very nature of this feeling (or lack there of) means the griever will be especially challenged to change it. It may mean needing to conjure a strength and conviction that feels hopelessly out of reach.
The solution, like a lot of things, is small steps. The first step (also like a lot of things!) is recognizing where the original problem lies. And I don’t mean the loss of a loved one. I’d say, rather, taking a look at some of the examples above and see exactly why, after a loved one has passed, that apathy has settled in.
No longer enjoying activities you once did? Don’t try and return to them right away. Like putting on a pair of pants that no longer fit, there are many things about our “old life” that just won’t be comfortable any more. So while it can be sad and very hard to see a beloved pastime stay in the past, there can be some unique excitement and possibility in trying something new.
If you’ve found yourself in the happy-guilt cycle one too many times, it may seem better to just avoid the happy part all together. Right? Well, before you answer I want you to really think about it. Because no matter how much time is left, and no matter how hard it may be to live a life without a loved one…you’re still here. Is a life without joy or contentment the only way to prove our love? Must we settle into an unfeeling existence so that we can forever pay tribute to a love that is lost? Take some time and really think about this. And explore whether there’s a balance to be had, and a way to invite both joy and sadness into our lives.
Next is the the idea that nothing really matters, and I’ll admit – this is a tough one.
But let’s consider this. Have you ever flown in an airplane and looked down at the little houses and the little cars and the little people and their little lives and their little problems? It can offer a perspective that we need probably more when times are good. If ever we’re caught up in the “small” issues of life, we need to be reminded of how little and fleeting and passing our problems can be. But what about when times aren’t so good and we’ve decided that nothing matters and it never really mattered all along?
Try to think of it this way. Before your loss you had a list. And on this list were all the things you cared about. Some good. Some stressful. Some were probably a little of both. And imagine this list is ordered from most important to least important.
For many people, after the loss of a significant person in their lives, that list and the order of the things on it changes. It’s important to note that it’s not that loss totally changes our list, it simply reorganizes the order of what we once held to be so important. But there’s some good news in this. It means that despite terrible circumstances that we’d never want and never ask for, we have the potential to gain a perspective that we probably never would have otherwise. Don’t squander this insight and go to the extreme of thinking that nothing matters. Instead, use it as the powerful tool it is.
- Don’t pressure yourself with timelines the way you did before. It will get done.
- Don’t worry about what other people think as you may have before. They’re too worried about their own lives anyway.
- Make time for joy, recognize what can wait for tomorrow, and realize that a good life is just a string of small pleasures. Find them.
Lastly, how do we move forward if there’s no more tears? What if we have closed ourselves off to feeling, so we simply don’t have to hurt anymore?
I’ve done some reading on grief yoga, and what I learned brought me to an even deeper insight of those who have had a loss. The ultimate goal in grief yoga is to do just one thing – reopen the heart of the griever. It recognizes the protective shell that can form around a grieving heart, and through movement and breathing it aims to soften and reveal a heart that needs healing, not hiding. There’s an uncertainty on the other side of wanting, but if a griever is forever closed to the idea of love, joy, and healing, it guarantees only one thing- that no light will ever be able to make its way in.
It’s not easy, making a change. With loss there is already so much that has changed and apathy can provide a comfortable place to rest after the torment of early grief.
So rest as you need to – just try not to stay in the world of not feeling for too long.
As hard as it can be to look forward or move forward, or to figure out what’s next, realize that living is in the wanting. I’m not talking about the wild dreams of our youth where anything seems possible. But wanting contentment. Wanting a little joy. Wanting some meaning, some peace, and the small beauties in life when we can find them.
If you’re struggling with apathy, we can help.
Join our community of grievers and connect with those who understand at: www.griefincommon.com.
Or schedule a free grief coaching session with me. Feeling unmotivated, lost and directionless can be one of the biggest challenges in grief, and grief coaching can help provide the encouragement and guidance you may need to get moving forward in the right direction. Follow this link to learn more: GRIEF COACHING