This post is part of a series for the witness to grief. If you’re supporting a friend or family member in pain, be sure to check in each Wednesday for a new post.
Something has been bothering me.
And as often happens when something is bothering me, it comes up in lots of different little ways to get my attention.
There is a person in my neighborhood who lets her dog run off-leash. Said dog aggressively rushes at my (leashed) dog and I when we’re out for a walk, causing brief but stunning dog fights. The dog owner’s response is that my dog must be causing hers to react this way: “he doesn’t do that to any other dog,” she says. Now, I don’t want to go on about this, because it’s too easy to get all in a non-helpful tizzy, but it triggers something in me.
It’s this thing about being told I’m doing something wrong when I’m simply being myself. When I don’t measure up to other peoples’ ideas of what I should be doing and how I should be living. When someone tells me that my experience is invalid or wrong, simply because that’s easier than taking responsibility for their own actions and poor choices.
You already know what this has to do with grief, don’t you.
Nothing brings out judgment and critique quite like catastrophe. No matter how you are bearing your grief, someone is always there to correct you in it: You need to get out more. You need to stay in more. You need to get rid of their things. How could you sell his truck? You know, if it were me, I would just go out dancing a lot, take my mind off it. Did you try supplements? Supplements save a lot of people. You wouldn’t feel so bad now if you’d been better at reaching out before this happened. What, are you that co-dependent that you can’t live without your partner now? I wouldn’t have thought that of you.
The correction can be relentless.
If you are reading this as you witness grief in someone you love, please bear with me. You are doing the best you can – at least, the best you have learned to be. No one gets a primer on how to deal skillfully with grief, not the griever, and not the one who has to stand beside and watch.
If you’re reading this as a person in pain – you know exactly what I’m talking about.
We are beings of judgment. That is not right or wrong, it’s biological reality: our brains are built to compare and contrast in order to help us make decisions.
Judgment happens. What’s important is what you do with that judgment.
If you are compelled to correct or to judge someone in pain, please: hang on a minute. Before you jump in with a suggestion, can you slow down enough to wonder why you have a need to correct or advise? Can you notice and acknowledge your own feelings of helplessness or fear? Instead of acting on those feelings by voicing your judgment and blame, can you reach out and hold a hand, silently and without questioning? Are you able to reach into the other person’s life and allow them sovereignty over their own ways of being in the world? Can you offer them respect for their own experience, even when it means you might have to change your habits or your expectations?
These are high-level skills, my friends. No one is great at them all the time.
It’s easy to judge and be angry right back in the face of judgment and anger. I can’t tell you the hours I’ve lost being angry at my neighbor, or the months and months of rage at how often I was corrected or chastised for the way I lived in grief in those early days. In some ways, that anger is easier. But it’s not what I want, and it doesn’t help anything change.
We’re all a work in progress. Our brains may be wired to judge, but they are also wired to love, to witness, to care. To do this for others, and to do this for ourselves.
Before that blame or correction leaves your mouth, take a moment, slow down, notice your judgment, breathe – and then respond. I know I need to practice that, again and again and again.
How about you? What’s your experience with being corrected in your grief? Or your experience trying not to correct someone you care about? Let us know in the comments, or send me an email.