[OPINION] Understanding grief: How to deal with those who want to be left alone

I write this on what could have been my mother's 59th birthday this year. Our family lost her last July.

I have refrained from discussing this publicly, as I am very private about family matters. But while I'm learning to come to terms with her loss, there are some elements of grief that made me learn new things about myself. I thought I already knew myself well in my mid-30s, but grief sure throws a nasty bender.

What not to tell those in mourning

Maybe some of you are trying to tiptoe around how to offer condolences to acquaintances or loved ones. Even though you mean well and are genuinely trying to help, some things being said to a grieving individual are not helpful and could inflict greater pain. Here's a list of things that you should not do with – or say to – a grieving individual:

Do not express your condolences in a public place, and with a loud voice. Say, when lining up in a coffee shop some people would say too audibly, "Hey, I heard about your loved one's death. Condolences," and give the grieving party a group hug. Please don't. That puts the bereaved on the spot and makes them uncomfortable. Have some decorum. Be discreet.

Do not joke about remarriage. Now this is the height of disrespect – do not joke about taking a person out so that you could introduce them to potential dates to cope. The least you deserve is to get thrown out.

Do not say "At least s/he's no longer suffering." Hey, those left behind are still reeling from the deceased's passing. That doesn't offer much comfort.

Do not say "S/he would/wouldn't want you to do that." It's projecting what you think is best for the bereaved by invoking the deceased loved one. It is not only presumptuous, but a bit manipulative too.

Do not say "Oh no, s/he's too young" or "S/he lived a full life." Best not to say anything. Really.

Do not say "S/he's in a better place." How would you know? Have you been to heaven and back?

Do not press the issue. Wait for the bereaved to bring up the topic of his/her deceased loved one.

Do not make it about your own grief. Unless it is something worth hearing, and is treated with sensitivity, don't bother. You may have to wait some time for it to be heard. Remember, this is about the grieving party's needs, not yours.

Normalcy, not sympathy

Some people slip into vices – drink, smoke, overeat – to cope. In my case, it was through a controlled diet. A regimented schedule. A rigorous exercise program. Aside from throwing myself into work and sports, I also cut off relationships that no longer square with this new reality. Control became my drug of choice.

It was then I realized that my way of grieving is considerably different from all those I've condoled with over the years. Most find comfort in being surrounded by people and being showered an outpouring of love.

I was the opposite – I wanted to be left alone, I wanted to be back in business, without people bringing my mother's death up. I rejected sweets and closely monitored my sugar intake, as my mother struggled with diabetes for years.

I grieved in private, refused to post about her passing on social media. Told a select few, but resented when others found out because it felt like an invasion of my privacy. I recoiled from the attention of those who condoled. I said I wanted normalcy, not sympathy.

Grieving is a very personal matter. There are stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – but in my case, they did not arrive in order. They were not linear. Grief hits a person in the most unpredictable ways. There's so much more to grieving than the waves of melancholy that manifest at the most inopportune moments.

While most bask in the love and comfort of being surrounded by people, there are some who appreciate being left alone, or doing business as usual. If you're one of the privileged few the bereaved lets in, know that your presence is enough. No words necessary. – Rappler.com

Marga Deona

As Rappler’s senior producer, Marga manages the live broadcasts and distribution platforms of Rappler’s videos. She also writes about the intersection of technology, culture, and businesses, with the occasional sports and music features.