Fight, Flight, or Freeze... and Allow

In a grief support group for adults, the question came up: how do you decide when to push back against pain and feelings of grief and when to not push back—to go with the feelings and experience them even though it’s hard? Not an easy question and not an easy answer. And for some of us, it’s a strange question. Why would we not push back? If we don’t push back, isn’t there another option besides going with painful feelings? Maybe we could distract ourselves or ignore them instead?

The intensity of painful feelings in grief can be experienced as a threat to our health and well-being and to our sense of balance and control. It’s often been said that we instinctively respond to threats in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. Staying put and experiencing the threat, allowing the feelings in without pushback or avoidance, is not one of these options.

Fight or pushing back is a natural response to grief. Who wants to fully feel sadness, pain, anger, guilt, or longing? When we do fight or push back, we often try to change how we’re thinking. Our feelings follow our thoughts, so if we can change our thinking, we can impact our feelings. We might think, “This is the worst. I’ve lost everything. I’ve got nothing left to live for.” There’s another voice in our heads, however, which pushes back: “This is bad, but it could be worse. I’ve lost a lot, but not quite everything—there are some things left and still worth living for.” Nothing wrong with this kind of “fighting,” and we need it. But sometimes, perhaps a lot of times, it’s not enough.

Flight is also an important coping tool. Sometimes we need a break from grief’s heavy thoughts and feelings, a respite from the painful reality that we’re in. So we take our bodies and our minds to other places. At times we do this literally. We get up, leave the room, leave the house, and take a trip. We put real distance between us and the reminders of our loss. More of the time, we take breaks in our heads. We watch a TV show or movie, read a book, put the music on and the headphones in, talk about anything else. Who can stand to think about and feel grief 24/7, and how healthy is that anyway? Nothing wrong with this kind of “flight,” and we need it. But sometimes, perhaps a lot of times, it’s not enough.

How about freeze? Freeze makes me think of when we walk our dog in the evening. Much to the distress of our dog, there are rabbits in our neighborhood. As the rabbits become aware of our presence, they freeze. Hoping not to be noticed, it’s easy to imagine them thinking, “Keep on moving. Nothing to see here. I’m invisible.”

When grief comes our way, we can do the same. Maybe if we act like it’s not there, it will go away. Maybe if we ignore it, it will leave us alone. We’ll just pretend like nothing has changed, like the circumstances of our lives are untouched and frozen in time. This kind of “freezing” is understandable and can be useful. Nothing wrong with it in the short-term, and we often really need it. But (you can take it from here), sometimes, certainly a lot of times, it’s not enough.

So, taking inventory of our coping with grief toolbox, we see fight, flight, and freeze. What if we add “allow?” “Allow” breaks the easy alliteration of fight, flight, and freeze, and maybe that’s telling. Fight, flight, and freeze usually happen without much awareness or intention. They can be pretty automatic, even “autopilot.” Allow is different. Allow generally only happens with a conscious decision. When grief comes knocking at our door, we can instinctively tell it to get off our property (fight), slip out the back door (flight), or stay quiet inside and hope it goes away (freeze). It’s a different thing to open the door and invite it inside or join it on the porch swing (allow).

Why would we do this? Why would we even consider dropping the pushback, distraction, and avoidance strategies and allow ourselves to feel the pain and depths of grief? Because in the end, grief is not our enemy. It is a part of love, a part of us, and a part of the ones we have lost. Allowing grief, even for a little while, takes us closer to a place of wholeness. And it’s not like grief is going to just go away. Grief is not intimidated by our pushing back, not worn down by our slipping away, and not fooled by our disappearing act. It needs our attention and our company to keep it from becoming a ghost haunting our waking and sleeping hours. And we need that, too.

Allowing grief is hard, but it is doable. It often helps to start with short doses. Having support helps, too—from a compassionate friend or fellow traveler in the grief world, from the well of one’s spiritual resources (for those so inclined), and from lessons learned from past experiences with hard things. And breathing…breathing almost always helps. Like any skill, we get better the more we practice. After a while, it’s not so intimidating and we don’t feel as stalked by grief as we did before. Sometimes, the more we allow grief in, the more comfortable it feels, and we may start treating grief more like an old friend. “Oh, it’s you. Please have a seat, and let’s remember how it used to be, how it’s different now, and how we’ll never forget.”

Fight, flight, freeze, and allow. Each has its place in our response to loss and the grief that follows. We have most of our practice with the first three. Finding ways to practice the last one, allowing, will take us places where the first three just can’t go. And that, with time, can be a very good thing.

Greg Adams2019.jpg

Greg Adams, LCSW, ACSW, FT
Program Coordinator
Center for Good Mourning
[email protected]

Other Voices 

Tracy Waller is, among many things, a bereaved mother, and that reality impacts every other part of her and her life. In this testimonial, she speaks for many bereaved parents in describing how life is different following the death of child. "I have lost my child. I'm sure you are aware of this unpleasant fact, but it has come to my attention that you may not know how to respond to it. Therefore, I, and my brothers and sisters in this horrific journey called bereavement, have put together a few facts to help you help us." Thank you, Tracy, for sharing your insights with the rest of us.  Continue Reading...

student in mask heading into school

In the Spotlight

This year’s “back to school” experience will be like no other as it follows a year of lost in-person school for many and COVID-19 losses at many levels. Fortunately, the Coalition to Support Grieving Students has provided some helpful guidance for schools as they support their students during this challenging time of transition. Learn More

son discussing options with his parent

Living All the Way

Advance directives are intended to help us get what we want and avoid what we don’t want if we are not able to speak for ourselves in a health crisis. But, they don’t always accomplish what we want and give our healthcare team the guidance it needs. Here is a look at how we could do it better. See More
dad comforting his daughter

Particularly for Parents

It’s one of the hardest conversations a parent can have with their child: talking about someone who is dying, seriously ill, or likely to die. The wonderful Canadian Virtual Hospice website, fortunately, has some helpful guidance for just these conversations. Read More

7169fXSzmSL_Ida Always book cover.jpg

51EFsLMIN8L._SX260_Wherever You Are_book cover.jpg

For Your Library

When someone dies, one of the hard lessons for children (and adults) is that we are and still can be connected to the person who has died. Our old relationship has ended and a new relationship waits to be developed. These two children’s books, Ida Always and Wherever You Are my love will find you, serve as good illustrations and reminders of these continuing connections with those who have died.

Ida, Always by Caron Levis and Charles Santoso, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016.

Wherever You Are my love will find you by Nancy Tillman, Feiwel and Friends, 2010.

One of the more helpful concepts in the grief/coping world is that of “continuing bonds.” The idea is that we continue to be connected to those who have died and those connections can be sources of great strength, meaning, and comfort. As has been insightfully said, people die but love does not.

Both of these books, Wherever You Are my love will find you and Ida, Always, skillfully and beautifully illustrate the concept of continuing bonds. And like the best children’s books, they are also compelling for adults.

In Wherever You Are my love will find you, the narrator’s voice is that of a parent or caregiver of a child. With rhyming words and beautiful and playful illustrations, the message comes through—there is nowhere you can go and nothing you can do to prevent my love from finding you as you are and always will be deeply loved. A child is presented in every illustration with the child interacting and playing with animals in a wide variety of natural settings. The child wears a hat and androgynous clothing, and the child’s face is never presented clearly which allows the child to be a more universal figure. There is no story or plot, just variations on the theme that the narrator’s love will always be present in the child’s life. It is easy to imagine that this book could be used well when there is an expected separation of a child and a parental figure through death or other circumstances.

The book Ida, Always tells a story of two polar bears in a zoo, Gus and Ida. It is a fictional story inspired by a real pair of bears in New York City’s Central Park Zoo. Gus and Ida are long-time friends who love each other deeply. Ida becomes sick with a condition which will eventually lead to her death. Guy and Ida spend Ida’s remaining time with as much fullness and sensitivity as possible. After Ida dies, Gus experiences Ida’s presence in his heart, a presence that will be there “always.” Richly illustrated and engagingly told, this story could bring comfort to those facing or grieving an anticipated death.

Wherever You Are my love will find you and Ida, Always are good additions to children’s books which illustrate how our love for each other persists through a great diversity of life circumstances, even including death. Other books which explore the theme of the persistence of love and connection include: The Invisible String, Mama Do You Love Me?, Papa Do You Love Me?, Knots on a Counting Rope, and Guess How Much I Love You. It is a lesson that deserves many variations and reminders for both adults and children.
grieving parent

Taking Questions

How can parents move forward together while handling the death of their child very differently?

The tragic death of a child often reminds us of a basic truth: that just because we’ve had the same loss, we don’t necessarily have the same grief. Our grief is a function of who we lose, how and when we lose them… but also of our unique relationship to them, and our own particular ways of coping with adversity. Nowhere is this clearer than with many mothers and fathers mourning the loss of their child. Continue Reading...


We want to hear from you!

If you haven't already, please take this brief survey, and let us know what you think of The Mourning News. Your feedback on The Mourning News - what's helpful and what's not, ideas and suggestions, and questions to be addressed in future editions - is very welcome.

Send comments and questions to [email protected].