In the movie “Ordinary People,” Timothy Hutton’s character shuns his and his brother’s best friend after Hutton’s brother dies in a boating accident. Hutton’s stated reason is that it is too painful to be around the friend as it brings up too many memories of his brother. The friend is hurt and reminds Hutton that he, too, is grieving. The scenario is very common in real life.
We were recently reminded of how frequently this occurs when a friend of ours shared his story about being shunned by his wife’s family after she passed away. Not only was he left to grieve the loss of his wife of 30 years, he was also now grieving the loss of her family and struggling with a lot of uncertainty about why. Oddly, another friend of ours was upset with her own family for not being supportive enough while feeling that her in-laws stepped up instead.
Grief has become a complicated process for many in our society. This is primarily due to the variety of cultural and religious beliefs about death present in our country. More homogenous cultures have commonality in their beliefs about death and entrenched traditions that are part of the grief process. Our grieving processes have a lot to do with our conditioning as children. And we all have different conditioning processes at hand. Sadly, our differences in grieving can lead to further upset when we take offense with another’s process.
Ed recalls his own family dynamic: “My mother spent the last month of her life in a hospital. My two older brothers and I had very different responses to visiting her. My oldest brother went every day, my older brother stopped going to visit the last three weeks, and I went about every three days. Our stated reasons for our own pattern of visitation were as different as the patterns themselves. Although there were resentments back then, we have all come to realize our differences were not about who loved mom most or who was acting more responsibly. Instead our different patterns of visitation were about our different beliefs about death and dying along with significant differences in how each of us related to our mother and she to us.”
In the above situations it is difficult to avoid personalizing the seeming rejection of family members or avoid being judgmental of what appears to be uncaring actions. However, respecting and accepting our own and other’s grieving process requires staying out of judgment and demands avoiding personalizing another’s process. We can all understand the additional pain associated with surviving family members refusing to recognize, let alone meet, a grieving person’s needs. However, you need to ask yourself how it serves you to be angry with someone else’s unwillingness or inability to meet your needs.
Ask yourself, “Are other people really doing this to hurt me? Or are they simply struggling, too?” Let the wisdom of your heart guide you when determining your response.
In grief, circumstances may be similar; however, we are all having different experiences. The only experience we can control is our own. Here are some tips:
• Avoid expectations of your or another’s grief process. Allow for differences. No expectations; no disappointment.
• Take responsibility for your own emotional process, not anyone else’s.
• If you are bothered by someone else’s process, ask yourself, “What is this triggering in me?” And then responsibly work to manage your own experience.
• If you are feeling abandoned by another’s process, or if you are concerned about their emotional well-being, let your feelings or concern be known; but don’t hold them responsible for your feelings.
• Don’t try to draw water from an empty well. If you need additional support, seek out family, friends and community groups that are available.