By: Dr. Lou LaGrand
It is not uncommon, when coping with great losses, to have a well-meaning friend, acquaintance, or family member say the wrong thing at the wrong time. They may tell you that you need to take a specific action or that it is time to make a particular change and start getting back to being your old self. You know and I know that getting back to being as we were before the loss occurred just isn't going to happen. Big losses change us.
Again, I emphasize that toxic people think they are doing the right thing and want to help you out. However, we are all products of a culture that distorts the grief process and continues to pass on the myths learned early in life. Sometimes toxic people have an accurate piece of information to convey but the timing is horribly wrong. Or as one actively grieving widow once said to me, "How does she know what my needs are?" Good caregivers are essentially good listeners not tellers of what one needs.
What can we do to cope with the additional stress these unwanted remarks generate? Here are five approaches to consider.
1. As hard as it might be, try to maintain your composure as you respond to the person. To quickly snap back with a stinging remark only heightens your justifiable anger (as well as the physical changes that go with it) and may very well cause a temporary break in your relationship with the person. Of course, much depends on the nature of the remark and the tone of voice in which it was delivered.
2. Try a simple reply such as, "I'm not ready to do that" or "I know you mean well, but I have to make the changes I need according to my timetable." That may be all that is required. Also, there is nothing wrong if you decide not to respond in any way. Read the situation, and then take the appropriate action.
3. Reduce contact with people who don't get the message or expect you to follow their agenda for your grief. Their nonverbal communication will give them away every time. When you have to be in their presence, be polite (it will save you much energy) but part company as soon as possible. There is nothing wrong with absenting yourself from a situation where you know you would have to talk to the person for an extended period of time. You are simply caring for yourself.
4. Everyone grieves differently but not everyone knows this important concept. Thus, you may be able to prevent unwanted remarks by telling your caregivers we are all different in the way we adapt. Normalize your grief for them. In short, teach them what your grief is like. Yet, emphasize how much you appreciate all they have done and how grateful you are for their being around your pain and listening to your thoughts. In short, you are educating your support system, even though it is a difficult time for you to be the teacher.
5. Finally, carefully consider the following. Has a person who said something to you that was upsetting experienced a loss very similar to your great loss? For example, was it one widow speaking to another or was it someone who has little or no insight into what you are experiencing? I do not mean to imply that a person who has experienced a similar loss knows your grief.
No one can know another's grief experience because every relationship is one of a kind. However, is it possible that what the person said to you was something that could be helpful as you proceed in your grief journey? I once heard a widow say, "It takes one to know one" implying there is often compatibility and awareness among those who have suffered similar losses. That person may (and may not) in the long run be helpful to you. You just were not ready to hear whatever was said.
In summary, it is important to be kind in your response to the toxic person. Keep in mind that many potential caregivers are at a loss as to what to say to one who is mourning. They need direction. Often, their sadness in seeing you in so much pain causes them to try to do anything they think is helpful. In the final analysis, only you can decide how much additional pain the person continues to cause by being around you. Because of the stress of grief you may have to limit your conversations or else choose to add to your existing burden.