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Searching Behavior

Posted Nov 27 2010 8:44am

Pining is the subjective and emotional component of urge to search for the lost object. ~ Colin Murray Parkes

Colin Murray Parkes was a grief expert who studied the phases of grief and the behavior in those who are grieving. Searching behavior often explains why people try to connect with those whom they have just lost to death….but when the person is still out there, still “reachable” it makes it difficult to suspend contact and simply let the searching compulsion pass without doing anything about it.


Parkes was one of the first to analogize human searching behaviors to that of animal species who mate for life.

Parkes quotes Konrad Lorenz who studied the “searching” behavior in the grey lag goose who would search for a mate even if the mate had been killed in plain sight. The goose will fly great distances, calling and wailing for the lost partner, often going such great distances as to get lost or injured in an accident. The frantic goose was detrimental to itself, unable to give up the search for the mate that was lost.

Parkes studied bereaved widows and found the searching behaviors to be similar. He observed their tendency to look for their husbands in a crowd or go to call their name or dial them on the phone…even though they were dead.

These behaviors happen in most bereaved people even though they know their loved one is dead. The bereaved person KNOWS, intellectually, there is no point to look for the person, but they have a strong impulse to search, to put life back together the way they knew it, and they often will search in vain…just like the goose.

This is a very distressing part of grief and EVERYONE experiences it to some degree no matter what the loss. We pine and we search as a way to reattach to the lost loved one, as a way to make the pain and loneliness go away.

Attachment makes us feel safe and secure in the world even if the attachment is unhealthy or destructive.

When the person is alive and there was a breakup, this is often when people will try to open up communications with the ex. The urge to “search” is part of the grieving process but you really should avoid getting back in touch with your ex. When you are pining and searching, you are in a temporary state and anything you say now can and will be held against you at a later date.

The searching/pining phase is extremely uncomfortable to just sit with. People who have had a loved one die find themselves calling them or going by their house during this intensely emotional phase. When the person is alive it makes it that much harder to avoid contact, but you really should. You don’t want to present the pining/searching part of you to your ex right now. Nothing good will come of that. Don’t do it.

Sit through the discomfort because connecting is just going to bring you back to the beginning and you don’t want that.

The urge to search is normal, but the search should not be done.

Searching behaviors such as checking Facebook, texting, emailing, calling, writing, driving by, “bumping into” are all ways to put back together what was lost…but it CANNOT be put back together.

Understand the urge to search is a component of grief…it is a frustrating and uncomfortable part…it might make you feel as if you are going crazy…you might feel incredibly anxious and upset over it…

But it passes…the less you give into it, the easier it gets. The more you give into it, the harder it gets.

You don’t want to lose your way or get into an accident…you want to stay strong and know where you are.

Journal. Write letters to the ex that you don’t mail. Sit on your hands. Call a friend and say you’re going crazy can you talk. Go to a movie. Do SOMETHING…but don’t connect.

Tolerate the searching feelings without reaching back.

It gets better if you don’t give into the searching behavior. Sit with it and know that it passes and that it gets better.

It really does.





Susan J. Elliott, M.Ed., J.D.
Author: Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Da Capo 2009).
To order the book click HERE


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  1. LyonFranceGuy:
    Another great post, well timed with the holiday season, as many of us may be experiencing this pain now. I know I am. My inability to get over the “pining/searching” stage is what led me to get back together with my BH 3 or 4 times over the course of our 2.5-year relationship. I’ve often said here that my biggest fear is the grief stage, right where I am now, because every time the pining started -until this latest breakup, that is - I was right back on her doorstep. For me, this pining and searching equated with love: in short, I believed I was “still in love” with her and had to get back together with her - and fast - before she ran off with someone else. Perhaps I genuinely was still in love at that time, but the searching/pining completely blinded me to all the hurtful things she ever had done and said, allowing me to conveniently overlook the fact that our relationship was just BAD NEWS and UNWORKABLE from the very start. In sum, I hated being alone, having my heart broken. I started pining. I begged for her to come back. And the circle started again. In my experience, the pining/searching phase can at times be like strong hallucinogen: it makes you see and feel things that simply are not there. And as a result of these “hallucinations” we might well go dancing right back into the shitty relationship we had just gotten out of. I also think it is equally dangerous to be “pined after” or “searched for” if we do not have our stuff together or are not at our strongest or are fragile in any way. If we are vulnerable, we might end up taking back the same bag of slop we had just put out with the trash. We might actually start feeling sorry for the BH, saying “But she/he still loves me. Maybe I can give him/her another chance.” This is how I had been thinking recently when my clearly pining/searching BH sent me some “I want another chance” birthday card after I had been NC with her for more than 2 months. But now, after reading the GPYB book and all of your posts, my perspective has changed and I’m able to see her attempt for what it truly is. The GPYB process, this blog and your posts have shown me that grief sucks, grief knows no timetable and grief permeates everything we do, but If we don’t do the grief, we can never ever really get over the BH or whatever loss we may have suffered. And seeing as though pining/searching is perhaps the most painful part of an already extremely painful process, we have to ride it out if we want to move beyond. I’m riding it out now, and it isn’t fun, but I know I’ll be better off in the end for it.
  2. lovelyl912:
    When? When does it bet better? I have not reached out to my ex after our final conversation months ago. I do not email him or text him but I still find myself searching in the crowd sort of speak... I try very hard to fight through those moments, because as it was just written, it is extreeeeeeemly uncomfortable and I feel anxious. So I turn my phone off or call someone or do other sorts of things to help ease my mind, but this is the phase I'm stuck in and I just don't get it... :cry:
  3. lovelyl912:
    LyonFranceGuy-- Thanks for your post above. It was great to read...made me feel better actually. I agree with you in that this blog site shows that grief sucks and knows no time table but crap man, I'm so ready to move on from this. I'll keep riding it out as best I can because I am severely looking forward to reaching my new destination.
  4. carolw:
    I'm stuck....and I realize I am not alone. I'm not sure why I can't let go. Well actually I do know. It's that I'm afraid. Afraid of being alone, afraid of the unknown. Afraid that I will actually have to do this all on my own. I wonder why I am pining for someone who has clearly stated to me that he does not love me, hasn't loved me for years, has just been playing the role. What does that say about me? I can't believe that I would actually want that person in my life. But I do. Why?? I hate the word why. there is never an answer that satisfies. I sometimes feel like it would be easier to deal with a death than this. The fact that my ex is still around, angers me. The fact that he won't talk to my kids makes me even more angry. The fact that he could just slip off the face of the earth with no feeling about it angers me. And all this anger makes me sad. So many people have told me to "just get over it." Sure.... like that will just happen. My emotional needs have not been met in a long time, yet I still have a part of me that wishes he would walk in the door and say he wants to try and make it work. And that confuses me even more. My intellectual side of my brain knows that I have to search my behaviors and see them for what they are. Desperate attempts to get back what has been missing for a long time. My emotional side of me can't let those behaviors go. I can only pray as I continue this journey, the days become less dark, and my behavior becomes more about me. Grief, anger, hurt, they all stink. Necessary but they stink nonetheless.
  5. LyonFranceGuy:
    Lovelyl912, Thanks for your reply. I totally relate to how you are feeling. It makes us feel anxious, it makes us feel crappy, it makes us just want to get back with that BH at any cost just to feel good for a little bit, just get a tiny bit of the love and affection that we need and are missing so badly. It's like withdrawals from smoking or drugs, so we need a fix. But the dark side to acting on the pining sensation - and I'm speaking from experience, because I did it 4 or 5 times in the past two years with the same woman - is that after the "honeymoon period" of reconciliation (which gets shorter and shorter every time) wanes, the same old BH is right there staring us in the face. He or she will not have changed. So we've got to change ourselves, in order to be able to face the tidal wave of sadness and longing. Seriously, Lovelyl912, this is about the hardest thing I've ever had to do, and I'm 41. You want to move on, I want to move on, so many people reading this are sick and tired of feeling crappy and dying to just move on. Unfortunately, we cannot will it to happen. We can push and push, but to no avail. Once, and only once, we've worked it out inside of us, it will just happen, we will move on and stop the pining. We might not even realize it. I can't speak from experience, seeing as though I haven't ever really been able to do it, but after hanging out here for a couple of months, I do believe it will happen. JUST GIVE IT TIME! :!:

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