Reader’s Note:  This post is a bit longer than most, feel free to break it up by reading in installments 🥰

In a recent conversation with someone very close to me, I was sharing a concern I had about a friend of mine whom I have not heard from in some time.  I am generally the last one to notice these things since most of my friends and I share histories that go back for decades.  We share the friendships that can be left off during one year, and pick right back up a few years later when our lives and schedules allow for that.  I am not a huge fan of talking on the phone either, so I don’t call my friends much to chit chat unless that is our only option for connection.  In which case, it’s magical.

So when I shared my sense of worry over a friend’s lack of connection, the conversation took a turn.  It seemed so odd to me not to hear from this friend that I started wondering, maybe something is wrong?  Could there be illness or other tragedy in her life that would preclude her from reaching out and/or responding to my attempts to connect?  When I shared my concerns, the response from my confidant was something like:

Lisa, try not to create stories about something just because you don’t have any information…Assigning meaning that doesn’t exist is useless and can be dangerous.”

Score one for the non-certified-non-life-coach!  I love this advice, so much so that I decided to share it with blog readers and podcast listeners.  Theoretically, I know this type of magical story telling is a trap we fall into.  And it helps nothing other than perhaps a fleeting moment of relief from the anxiety that arises when we are worried about someone.  But alas, as is often the case, this dynamic is far easier to identify in others, and is less easy to see in ourselves.

My response was: “Thank you, you are so right, I appreciate the reminder.  I know nothing about this situation so I won’t go around making up stories in my head to try and make sense of it.

I call these fake stories that are completely fabricated by our minds “Brain Blunders.”  Our brains are fascinating.  They are the best, most complex and efficient computers known to humankind.  They work so well that we sometimes forget to challenge them.  I remember learning in college Psychology that in the absence of information, our brains will automatically jump start themselves into crafting a narrative that we can live with or that makes sense.  Most everyone can relate to having filled in the blanks of a situation without realizing it, and in some cases making it much worse.

Our brains will readily supply the details of a situation when there are gaps of data, and we are trying to reconcile whatever is happening.  Maybe you have been cut off by another driver in traffic, and had the generosity of assumptions to think to yourself “Maybe that driver just got bad news, or is driving to the hospital, or is in acute pain trying to drive.”  If you have done this or anything similar, you know exactly the kind of “Brain Blunders” I am talking about.

And if we are assigning fake meaning to anything we need to understand what we are doing:  Basically we are making shit up.  And we need to stop doing that, especially as it relates to grief.  Whether we are grieving, or supporting someone who is, this is a vast dangerland that we must make an effort to avoid.

If someone cuts us off in traffic, whether we brain blunder something kind (aka ‘She’s having a bad day,’) or cutting (‘What a jerk!’) we are still fabricating facts.  And worse case, we are probably 100% wrong, 100% of the time, but there is no major fallout as long as that driver goes on their merry (or miserable) way, and we do the same.

But brain blundering where grief is concerned can have some devastating consequences.  When we are hurting or in relationship with someone who is, the stakes go way up.  There is so much to lose.  The brain blunders become more than just a stranger in a car that we will never see again.  They can literally manufacture a reality we create in our minds that has nothing to do with actual reality.


Let’s say I am supporting a friend who has endured a loss recently.  Perhaps I leave messages, send cards and flowers, and send texts like “I am here for you whenever you need me.”  Now let’s say I get a response once or twice in the beginning.  But as weeks and months pass, I hear nothing.  I invite this person to take a walk, break bread or get a drink.  And these pleas for connection are ignored.  I stop hearing a response to my outreach attempts.

This situation can cause confusion and even cognitive dissonance, since pre-loss, that person was always responsive and communicative.  My brain begins to wonder:

RESPONSE #1:  “What the heck?… That’s weird.  I guess we aren’t as close as we used to be… I guess she has new friends now from her grief group…She’s on Facebook spending a lot of time with that one friend of hers whom I never clicked with.  I guess she doesn’t need me anymore.”

This is a brain blunder at work!  I am making up stories because I am confused.  And worse, I internalize the stories and make them personal, as if there is something wrong with me.  Next time you are tempted to do this, and you won’t have to wait very long, try a different approach:

RESPONSE #2:  “What the heck?… That’s weird.  I guess this loss is really affecting her, maybe so much so that she is unable to respond or return my messages.  That must be devastating.  I know she is not one to talk about things in general, so I will continue to reach out, in a non-demanding way, to let her know I am here no matter what.  Even if years go by before I hear from her again, I will be right here waiting.  I wish I could help her more.  Maybe I will look into ways to support a friend who is grieving.” 

See the difference?  The first response was adding all kinds of fake details based on the very limited information available about the person in grief.  It’s a zero sum game, with an intended consequence such as concluding that “…she doesn’t need me anymore.”

Alternatively the second response does not personalize the situation or make me defensive.  No imaginary information is being manufactured to fit a narrative that makes sense to me.  I can simply realize that I have no idea why I haven’t heard from her, and even try to think of other ways to be present to her.  These efforts are unattached, with no agenda.  I can shift from “What’s wrong with me that she’s not calling?” to “This is more serious than I realized.  I need to let her know I care, but also give her the space she needs in this terribly difficult time.” 

The second response is not some conclusion I am drawing that lets me off the hook for trying to connect further.  It’s more of a challenge to the brain blunder that is making up fake stories so I can live with the apathy that I am feeling from someone I care about.  We can learn to recognize our tendency to do this, and eventually build our skills at catching ourselves before we go down some rabbit hole that is conclusive, painful and even damaging to our relationships.

So how does this look if we are the ones in pain and not in the support role?  It can be even more insidious.  Suppose someone close to me came to a funeral when my loved one died, helped me out for a few days and went back home to re-engage in her life.  As the days and weeks go by, and I hear nothing from her, I start to get nervous and fill in the blanks with false information.

RESPONSE #1:  “Wow, I guess that initial support was just for show.  When she said she is always here for me she meant during that week she was here.  She hasn’t called or texted in weeks.  And I see her on Facebook, I mean I know she is going out and doing things with family and friends, so I guess she just doesn’t want to deal with me or my grief anymore.”

In this response, I am again falling into the trap of my extraordinary brain that works constantly to fill in the missing information of a given situation, and worse, I am making it personal.  It is a zero sum game, with a dangerous conclusion that she doesn’t want to be involved with our friendship anymore.  This assumption could rob me from the genuine love and support of a long time friend at a time when I need it most.   See if you notice a difference with an alternative approach:

RESPONSE #2: Wow, I guess that initial response was just for show.  Oops, wait a minute, there’s that brain blundering thing at work again.  Before I make up stories that make my isolation easier to reconcile, I should step back and recognize what a good friend she was to me at the time of the funeral.  She literally dropped everything, flew across the country and left her busy life on hold.  Instead of wondering why I haven’t heard from her, I might continue to reach out, but I can also give her some space.  I have no idea what might be happening in her life.  I realize that just because tragedy has befallen me, doesn’t mean that no one else is having a hard time.”

In this second response, I am again avoiding playing that zero sum game where there is a winner and a loser and a beginning and an end.  I am backing up out of my own shortsightedness and pain, to consider that there may be some other reason, and NOT because she doesn’t want to deal with me or my grief, that I haven’t heard from her.  Additionally, I am basing my thoughts on real facts, things that actually happened (ie, her flying here and dropping everything) instead of fabricating assumptions that have no actual anchor in reality.

Thanks for checking out this extended post.  We all have a lot more to learn about our brains and how they make our lives incredible, but also the ways they can get us into trouble.  Practice this when driving.  Next time someone cuts you off, and they definitely will, try to notice what stories your brain is telling you about them.  Then challenge those conclusions with a “Whoops, I am making up stories again” attitude.  Once you practice this with something neutral, you can extend that practice to vulnerable situations you find yourself in, and hopefully cultivate some curiosity, instead of making it personal, and coming to ridiculous  “lose-lose” conclusions.

In closing, I will just again say “Thank You” to the wise soul who helped me with this experience recently.  I hope that sharing it here may help your own journey of healing, or journey of supporting someone who is, a bit easier and a bit less fanciful. 🦋

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