Grief’s Duality: Reacting versus Responding in Times of Loss

Mar 27, 2024

Becca Guenther, LMSW, CAGCS, CCTP

We often think of the terms “respond” and “react” as interchangeable, but did you know that there is a distinct and important difference between the two?

This distinction can be especially helpful to know of when considering how we connect with others while we are grieving. Simply put, a (grief) reaction is the automatic thought, feeling, or action that comes to the surface because of something that has triggered our grief. For example, perhaps you see something that reminds you of your loved one and your reaction is to feel a pang of sadness and turn away from the thing that triggered the memory of your person. Our grief reactions are instinctual and automatic and are not a conscious choice that we make, and as such, are not something that we necessarily have control over.

A (grief) response comes after an initial reaction; this is what we do have control over. Responses are what we do after we have had a chance to observe and reflect on our initial reaction – we have taken a moment to thoughtfully notice our reaction(s) and their impact on us, and then we make an informed choice on how to proceed. A grief response could be to feel/do/think the same thing as your initial reaction, or it could be a decision to choose to respond in a different way that is more helpful for yourself and your healing work.

In the example above where your initial reaction was to feel sad and then turn away from the item that made you think of your person, your response could be to still feel sad but to resist the urge to turn away and instead stay in the sadness, letting it wash over you as you remember your person; from there, perhaps you share about your sadness with a friend or family member and receive an opportunity to have your grief seen and validated by another person. To aid in remembering the difference between the two, it might be helpful to think of reactions as automatic, whereas responses are more intentional and reflective.

reactions = automatic responses = intentional

Litsa Williams, program director and co-founder of What’s Your Grief, talks more about the differences between these terms and she shares that our reactions are neither wrong nor right, or bad or good; they are just instant and automatic thoughts, feelings, and actions that come up. While we cannot control our initial reactions, we do have an opportunity to pause, reflect, and choose to respond with intention. If you’re interested in putting this knowledge into action in your own life and wonder where to start, Litsa suggests beginning with noticing your reactions and getting curious about them. Pay attention to what your gut reaction is when your grief is triggered: Do you try to avoid the pain? Do you embrace it? Do you ignore it?

Once you’ve gotten comfortable with practicing becoming aware of your reactions, you can move towards assessing them – Litsa suggests asking yourself, “Is this [reaction] helping or harming me?” From there comes the hard work of deciding how you would like to respond: Do you go with your gut and respond in the same way as your initial reaction? Do you step outside of what’s natural or comfortable in order to feel the often painful feelings of grief? Would acting on your gut reaction help move you closer to or further away from the person you want to be?

Becoming aware of your reactions and then mindfully slowing down to reflect before you respond is a process that takes time and practice – these are changes that cannot be made overnight and it is a kindness to give yourself the gift of time and patience. While it requires effort, you may find that engaging in this practice may bring benefits to your life and to your healing, such as having more opportunities to connect with others and to honor your grief rather than turning away from it. Getting curious about your own reactions and responses can also be helpful outside of grief work. You may consider how taking a moment to reflect before you respond may offer positive changes to your communication with others or in how you deal with daily frustrations.

OUR FREE GRIEF CARE PROGRAMS:

While feelings of grief are normal, handling them can be difficult and painful. Talking about what you are going through can help. Visit www.askforangela.com to check out our grief support calendar with a detailed listing of upcoming support groups.

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