Monday, October 8, 2012

Grief Support: When Others Fail to Meet Our Expectations

[Reviewed and updated April 7, 2024]

At the moment, take heart from those around you who want to care for you and be present for you in your distress. They don't always know how, they don't always do it right, but they try. Sorrow is a matter of taking turns. This year, it's yours. Next year, it might be you setting the table for someone else who feels that they cannot cope. ~ Deidre Felton, in Bereavement Magazine, November/December 2000.

In an earlier post I shared the observation that, no matter how good their intentions, people may find it difficult to know what to say or do when we are struggling with the loss of a beloved family pet. But what happens when we’re anticipating or coping with the death of a person dearly loved?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all had a network of family and friends who could be present for us, who knew exactly what we needed without our having to tell them, who would bear witness to our struggle, and who would honor our unique journey through grief?

Unfortunately, as many of us soon discover, most people in our culture simply don't know what to do or say when someone dies, or they're so afraid of doing or saying something "wrong" that they avoid us and / or the situation all together.

But can any one of us honestly say that, until we lost a loved one of our own, we were completely sure of ourselves in the presence of another's sheer, raw grief? Did we always know the "right" thing to say? Were we always the first one on the scene to offer our presence, solace and comfort?

I think until it happens to us personally, we simply cannot know how involved and emotionally draining the grief process truly is, much less how vulnerable we are to the insensitivity and lack of understanding we may encounter from others who've yet to walk this journey.

One of the advantages of visiting our online Grief Discussion Groups site is that mourners find themselves among others who are on the same path--and in addition to sharing our own stories of pain and loss, we can practice giving to one another the compassion and understanding we ourselves desire from all those friends and family members who may mean well, but don't know how to comfort us. When others take time to visit the site, if only to read what is posted there, they are presented with a wonderful opportunity: to learn and share what helps and doesn't help, and to increase their awareness as they reach out to others.

Because our culture isn’t comfortable with the subject of death, until it happens to us directly, few of us know how to cope with the pain of loss and grief. We don’t permit or encourage the free expression of sorrow in our society. Instead, many of us learn to control our feelings and hide our pain so we won’t embarrass ourselves in public or disturb other people. Sometimes we’re reluctant to turn to others, either because we haven’t learned to accept or ask for help, or we’re afraid others won’t know what to do with our feelings. Sadly enough, we live in a death-denying culture, and unless they've encountered death in a very personal way, most people really don't know what grief feels like and they don't know what, if anything, they can do to help a person in mourning.

If others are unfamiliar with the intensity and duration of grief, or uncomfortable with the expression of strong emotions, they may offer only meaningless platitudes or clich├ęs, change the subject, or avoid us all together. And there may be times when we will feel hurt by their thoughtless, trivializing comments. What is more, some people we know may be done with our grief long before we are, expecting us to be “over it by now” or worrying that we’re somehow “hanging on” to our grief. Uncomfortable with our strong feelings, they may change the subject or avoid any mention of our loved one’s name.

The challenge for mourners is to find ways to cope with the loneliness and isolation of grief. We need to think about and identify who is supportive in our environment and who gives our life purpose and direction. Our list may include family members, pets, relatives, close friends, co-workers, teachers, classmates, colleagues, clubs, athletic activities, religious groups, online forums, in-person grief support groups, bereavement counselors and therapists.

While some folks really are thoughtless and don’t think before they speak, we are wise to bear in mind that many well-meaning individuals have yet to experience a significant loss, so they really don’t know what grief feels like, how to respond, or what to say. They aren’t deliberately trying to hurt us. After all, no one can totally understand the relationship we had with our loved one.

We can’t expect others to guess what we need, either. So often in grief, we don’t even know what we need! (We certainly know what we want. We want our loved one back--but that is the one thing we cannot have, and nobody else can give it to us either.) When we want to be contacted, touched, held, hugged, listened to or pampered, we must say so. If all we want from others is help with simple errands, tasks and repairs, we must say so. If we want and need to be left alone, we need to say that as well, so others (especially children) won’t feel rejected.

I’d also like to add this thought about friendships. Unlike a therapeutic relationship (whose focus is on the client and the client’s needs) a friendship is a “two-way street” that, in most cases, requires us to give to the other as much as we get back. Like a good marriage, if it is to last, a close friendship requires fairly constant tending, and also requires that we overlook each other’s faults and shortcomings. In short, maintaining a close friendship is work, and sometimes it can be harder work than we may be capable of doing at the time, given the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

We all know that mourning is hard work, too, although of a different kind--but work nonetheless, and it requires a great deal of energy, most especially in the beginning. I suspect that when we are in the depths of grief, we have precious little energy left over to invest in our friendships. Over time, I think, our friends begin to notice this, and some of them may not be willing to put more into maintaining a relationship with us than we are able to give back to them.

Such “fair weather” friends may take a vacation from us and come back later when the weather’s nicer and they think we’re better, or they may abandon us completely, never to be friends with us again.

If we find that others are not there for us in the ways that we need them to be, we may not have the energy or the will to confront them effectively about that right now, and we may want to look elsewhere for  understanding, comfort and support.

I think it boils down to this: When dealing with others who aren’t living up to our expectations of how we think they should “be there” for us, we have three choices: We can choose to bear with such people and simply ignore their shortcomings; we can assume a teacher's role and enlighten them about what we've learned about grief and what we need from them; or we can look to others who are more understanding to find the support we need and deserve.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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  1. Beneficial article I'm happy to share! Thanks, Marty.

  2. I call "them" Ignorant Innocents. They don't know any better. Death, and talking about what it's like to live with the death of someone we love seems to be the last taboo in our society. Is it any wonder that when our death touches someone in our circle, we are ill-prepared and ill-equipped to offer help and support? How would we possibly know what to know? So ... at a time in our life when we need people the most ... many flee, and we are left alone. Remarkably, it is up to us to teach others how to care for us.

    1. And sadly it can happen when we are at our most vulnerable. But, as Deirdre Felton says, "Sorrow is a matter of taking turns," and sooner or later we'll each be touched by significant loss. I agree with you, Tom, and I believe that those of us who are veterans of grief and have some distance from it ~ enough to be a bit more objective about it ~ can play an important role in sharing with others what we've learned along the way. What helps? What hurts? What can we do differently next time? ♥


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