An Uncertain Solitude: On Grief as an Introvert
I am an introvert. An INFP (Introverted Intuitive Feeling and Perceiving) according to the Myers-Briggs test. I am most comfortable in solitude, with a book in hand, or on a trail in the woods. A view of the mountains and evergreen trees for company are usually enough for me. Socializing is often exhausting for an introvert. We usually need lots of alone time, or at least a quiet retreat to recharge. It’s not that we don’t like people. It’s just that the energy required for social interactions can be taxing for those of us who prefer stillness and solitude. This makes grief as an introvert particularly challenging.
Grad school taught me how to have a conversation with almost anyone who walks into my office. It taught me how to breathe through public speaking presentations. People I work with say they would never guess how much of an introvert I am. I tell them I am an introvert who has learned to function in an extroverted world. Left to my own devices, though, I’m the happiest one-on-one or in small groups with those who are comfortable with my reserved nature. And I certainly never learned how to face grief as an introvert, until my daughter was stillborn.
Community and Connection
We know how important community and a solid support system can be to a healthy grieving process. It’s the very reason I write for Still Standing, and why so many of us are here. We want to offer support, find community, and educate others about grief and loss. The friends and family, coworkers, and even strangers who show up for us, who encourage and support us with open hearts and open ears, are so precious. For an introvert, though, even if we have supportive people around us, it can be hard to receive that support.
While I was still in the hospital with Zoë, I asked a friend to call my birth announcement list. I was three days past my due date, and I knew people would begin calling and inquiring soon, curious if she had come yet. I needed to get ahead of that train, but there was no way I could do it myself. So I delegated it with a script – I was doing okay, but I wasn’t receiving visitors. I would get in touch with everyone when I was home from the hospital. This helped keep the number of people in my hospital room at any given time manageable. It also saved me from having to retell the story to new visitors. I wanted to spend every precious moment I had left with my daughter. My parents, my brother, and my sister-in-law were my only repeat visitors during my stay.
Communicating Grief as an Introvert
When I left the hospital, friends and family called and came to visit. I was so grateful for that outpouring of support. I’m still not sure I can express how much it meant to me. Still, talking about grief can be challenging, and I struggled with what to say. I heard myself repeating my story as if someone else were telling it. I covered the facts as I knew them – given our limited knowledge of what had caused Zoë’s death. Then I wrestled with how to put my grief into words.
For the first time ever, I answered the question, “how are you doing?” with an honest “awful.” The situation demanded it. But I didn’t know how to elaborate. How could I put the intensity of the transcendent love and grief I felt at the same time into a sensible sentence? It felt impossible and exhausting. Once, during a phone call with a dear friend, I was just unable to continue the conversation. My energy had been so drained by telling and retelling my story that I literally couldn’t talk anymore. Weeks later, I would yearn for opportunities to share. But in the beginning, when they came all at once, it could be overwhelming.
Support Groups and Sharing Grief
I went to support groups after my daughter was stillborn, and I always shared my story, but I know others who didn’t. I’m not sure why it felt easier to tell my story there, but it did. As many of us who are part of online and in-person support communities know, it can be easier to share with others who have walked the same road. Like many introverts, I felt more comfortable in a place where I could be “real.” I could talk about what I was going through without having to comment on the weather or make small talk. Baby loss support groups – both online and in-person – foster this kind of sharing. Still, I know of mothers who passed on their turn every time. Many struggled even more than I did to express themselves in a room full of strangers.
I found comfort in sharing what I was going through with other baby loss parents. I still struggled, though, to connect and share my grief with friends and family. It took me a long time to realize many people were looking to me to guide them in what to say and how to act. Since I had no idea myself, I could hardly take the lead. This is one of the challenges of grief as an introvert (and of grief in general, I think). People are looking towards us to show them how to respond when we hardly know ourselves.
When Your Friends Are Introverts, Too
In the first year after Zoë was stillborn, I remember staring at the contact list on my phone more than once, desperate for someone to share my heart with. Some part of me knew that if I could bring myself to dial one of those numbers, the person on the other end would likely be happy to listen. Still, I rarely dialed. It felt too vulnerable, reaching out. The times that someone had said the wrong thing, or froze when they heard my tears stuck with me, deterring me from trying again. Instead, I found myself praying that friends would call me, and ask how I was doing. Sometimes my prayers were answered, but more often they weren’t. Most of my friends are introverts too, after all. Reaching out and finding the right words was hard for them, too.
During that time, I dealt with feelings of isolation and loneliness that were strange to me as an introvert. I had never been so conscious of my need for others around me. Because I was grieving as a single parent, I wasn’t able to share my grief with an intimate partner. I relied on friends and family to provide that outlet for me. But after the first few weeks, it just wasn’t always there when I needed it.
Grief as an Introvert
So, I did what introverts do best. I struggled along on my own for three weeks out of each month until the next support group. There I remembered that I was actually normal, my grief was normal, and I was not losing my damn mind. I knew I wasn’t the only one dealing with grief as an introvert. The relief would carry me for a few days. But my heart always grew heavy again, and I longed for outlets.
I journaled, I drew, I painted. Introverts are often great at finding creative outlets for our feelings. I spent time in nature. But I also longed for human connection.
As time passed, I began to meet others who were comfortable talking about my loss with me. These connections helped ease my way into a new level of courage and confidence in bringing it up. In being the first to say Zoë’s name in a conversation. I learned how to hold space for my own story. How to tolerate the varied range of reactions I get from others when I tell it. Now, I can navigate tears, discomfort, fumbled words of sympathy, and genuine compassion with – I hope – equal amounts of grace. It’s not always easy, but I have developed a level of comfort with my own grief that allows me to let others know it’s okay, too.
If you are an introvert, how has this affected your grieving process? What challenges have you faced dealing with grief as an introvert? What have you learned?
Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash