It took a long time for me to speak publicly about my husband’s death. One year, actually. I didn’t do it out of any cry for attention, but for a need to acknowledge the truth with other people (no takey-backsies), and clear the way for a more positive future.
Not everyone was pleased.
I knew I had done the right thing when friends of friends and complete strangers began contacting me, thanking me for being forthright. They shared their stories of terminal illness, ugly divorces, losing the love of their life – but suffering in silence because no one in their circle wanted to talk about it.
But for a lot of survivors, close family and friends react negatively, outraged that you are sharing something private, exposing “dirty laundry”, or somehow speaking ill of the dead. The well-documented reasons for this closely follow aspects of the grieving process itself – which they themselves are unaware of. And so, they lash out.
Here are 10 reasons why:
1. Anger Family and friends may feel anger at the person who died – angry for leaving too soon, angry that they made poor life choices, angry that they didn’t make up old feuds before they died – and this gets redirected at you.
2. Embarrassment Some are embarrassed to be associated with a person who has had problems, or the people who talk about it.
3. Guilt We hold a lot of guilt about what-might-have-been. We wished we had gotten help sooner, discovered a cure, held their hand at the end. Talking (or reading) about death brings all of that back to the surface.
4. Shame They may carry secrets or have shared in destructive behavior with the deceased, and now feel shame about their part in the loved one’s story.
5. The Need for a Scapegoat Sometimes you just want to pin all that guilt and anger and shame on something else and drive it out of town. By transferring the blame to a living person, they feel like their pain is directed at someone who can hear them, and yet is beneath them enough that they do not have to accept responsibility for the pain they themselves inflict on the scapegoat.
6. Ignorance A surprising number of people are not fully aware that people grieve in different ways. They have never heard of grief therapy, don’t attend many art exhibits or concerts where this was a theme, and don’t seek out educational literature. They don’t know what they don’t know.
7. Resentment They may secretly resent the fact that you survived and your spouse did not. They may feel you didn’t do enough to save her, or that you didn’t stick with him to the bitter end. This is a little like guilt, but they’re transferring it to you. Instead of being their guilt, they make it guilt they believe you should feel. Instead of saying “I could have done more,” they say, “You should have done something!”
8. The Need to Revise History Lots and lots of people just do not want to remember the facts. It’s why everyone has their own version of “the good old days”. In grief, some want to re-frame history to suit their picture of the deceased and your relationship with them. They are crafting a new version of reality for themselves, and it has nothing to do with the truth. (Or, really, you.)
9. Denial – Denial is like quicksand. The more you struggle against it, the deeper you sink. Some people just don’t want to believe the words you say apply to the person they thought they knew, or the one they are trying to create. (See #8.)
10. Inability to De-center We see ourselves as the center of our world and everything else revolving around us. When a survivor speaks up, this is perceived as a personal attack, an act of hurtfulness perpetrated on them from something in their orbit. They cannot step outside of their place as the center of their world to look through your eyes (and see themselves as something in your orbit). De-centering is a skill in empathy, and those who can shift their center more easily have higher empathetic abilities. The opposite also applies.
None of these are good reasons for survivors to shut-up.
It’s easy to discount someone else’ experience, to minimize their pain. The truth is, not a lot of people my age know what it is like to lose a spouse. Even fewer are familiar with losing a spouse who was also a substance abuser. That’s why I write about it. I needed this information. I searched for months to find the few people brave enough to voice their stories. I would like other sufferers to know they are not alone much sooner than I did.
But I can not (yet) know what it is to lose a sibling, a parent, or a child. That grief is different. I respect and honor that, while at the same time having an awareness that our grief is parallel only in some places. You cannot see me from where you are standing, any better than I can see you. We can only keep trying to reach out and bring things into focus.
Some in your life – and those who walk out of it – believe that Time Heals All Wounds, preferably in silence. They don’t want to hear what you have to say, read what you have written, and may react for reasons you can only speculate about. Wish them well and carry on. Their journey is their business. Accept that they are no longer willing to be a companion on yours. There are others just ahead to help you carry the load.