I run the risk of dooming myself to the depths of Etiquette Hell with this story but I am honestly curious about how to gracefully handle grief and how to offer support to those going through it.
I had a friend, Christina, who sadly lost her father to cancer when she was 19. She was devastated. I and several mutual friends attended the wake to support Christina and help her mother. Christina was sad, a little angry, but mostly just grieving. Later that year, I started my freshman year of college, attending the same university as Christina who was now in her second year.
About two weeks after classes started Christina and I were sitting and chatting about our day. Christina was complaining about one of her professors and the heavy work load, typical college stuff. I replied in kind, saying that one of my professors was being unrealistic in the amount of reading he was assigning each night, complaining in a good-natured way that the life of the average college student was tough. Christina got a strange look on her face, almost like she was suddenly angry with me and said, “Your life isn’t that bad, your father is still around, isn’t he?”
I was completely thrown. I floundered a bit, agreed that I was lucky my father was still alive and tried to steer the conversation towards more light-hearted topics. I wrote the incident off and made a mental note not to complain like that again since I didn’t want to upset Christina or bring up her grief.
However, about a week later, Christina’s roommate, Laura, also suffered a personal loss. Laura’s grandmother passed away suddenly, and I was present in their dorm while she was getting ready to leave and head home for the funeral. I offered my condolences to Laura (I did not know her at all, she wasn’t a friend or even really an acquaintance, but it was obvious she was very upset) who accepted them graciously. Laura went about her business packing while Christina and I occupied the couch and coffee table in the common area for homework.
After about twenty minutes or so, Laura answered a phone call from someone in her family and spent a little time talking about what sounded like arrangements for the reception after the grave side service. She got a little choked up while talking, but finished the conversation and ended her call. She went into the bathroom to collect her toiletries, but ended up closing the door so she could have a moment to collect herself in private. At this point I am feeling really uncomfortable, because Laura is clearly very upset but here Christina and I are studying and essentially ignoring her. I mention to Christina that maybe we should go study outside, or downstairs to the mess hall and give Laura some privacy. She replies with, “I don’t even know why she’s so upset. It’s not like her dad died or anything.”
Again, I was completely thrown.
It gets worse though, Christina says something of that effect to Laura. Stating that she (Christina) knows “…way more about grief and loosing people” because she recently lost her father. Laura gets extremely upset with Christina, who in turn gets defensive and very emotional. Things devolved pretty quickly after that, ending in shouting and tears.
Incidents of a similar nature continued to occur. Christina would get angry with me and others if we complained a little too much or mentioned being sad or unhappy about things in our lives. It got to the point where it felt like she was comparing her misery to mine and constantly invalidating my unhappiness because it wasn’t as much as hers.
Eventually, everything came to a head a few weeks after Laura’s loss. I confided something in Christina, asking her not to share what I said with anyone. She broke her promise. When I found out and called her, highly upset that she had betrayed my trust like that, she again brought up the loss of her father, and declared that I didn’t know how good I had it. I was so angry with her that I shouted back, “What does your grief have to do with this? Nothing!” I hung up on her, too angry to keep speaking.
Our friendship continued to deteriorate rapidly over the next couple of days through a series of phone calls. She would not apologize for breaking her promise, and I would not give in to what I felt were attempts to use her grief to guilt me into letting my anger go. In the end, I lost her entirely as a friend. We have not spoken in years.
Grief is such a difficult thing for me. I feel so awkward when trying to be supportive, or sometimes feel cliche when I’m trying to be sincere. Was I wrong in how I behaved towards Christina? Should I have been more patient, more understanding of what she was going through? Is there such a thing as being inappropriate with your grief? If there is, where do you draw the line? And if a friend or family member crosses that line, how do you respond without coming off as insensitive or unthinking? 0422-14
Having lost my father, father-in-love, and 2 dogs in a 2 year span, I can attest that grief is an unusual and difficult process to work through. It affects a person in ways you hadn’t really thought were possible. Your world shrinks, your thoughts are scrambled, and a mental weight hangs on you.
However, I am also old enough to know that there are people in this world who will exploit any hardship in order to assume the identity of a victim. Being in mourning does not excuse people from saying purposely hurtful comments. Christina has discovered that the death of her father makes a handy excuse to justify her bitter words and that it works because most people stumble in confusion when confronted with this kind of victimhood. They internally ask themselves the same questions you have and freeze wondering how to tiptoe through this person’s grief.
Grief should make us doubly aware of the pain other’s are experiencing and to be able to reach out in shared compassion. Christina’s dismissal of the intensity of Laura’s grief was unkind and cruel.
One of the steps through the grieving process is anger. I don’t entirely agree that anger about the death of a loved one, or anger at the deceased for dying, is necessary to work through grief but many experts do. It may be that Christina was stuck in the anger step and was unable to move forward in which case she needed grief counseling to help her. What you could have done with Christina was to tell her, “It appears to me that you are struggling with the death of your father. Have you considered seeking grief counseling? “