Welcome back to our new series of posts drawing from conversations taking place on the Grief Revolution Patreon.
Such great exchanges are taking place in that growing community of grieving and supportive hearts that we want to enable the wider community to benefit as well. So, with the consent of our awesome patrons, each week we dive into our archive of monthly live Q&A sessions and share a new question, its answer, and any subsequent discussion.
This week’s question concerns figuring out how to decide when and with whom to be open about your grief.
Christine: My issue is about feeling conflicted about being “out” to new people I meet. When my nephew died by suicide in 2016 I was living in the Midwest, but have since moved home to California. It has been good to be around my old friends, who, for the most part, have been helpful. But….. some have been horrible and completely insensitive, especially as time goes on. I guess the expiration date for my grief is up in their opinion. Just recently after telling a old friend (who has been in my life for more than 20 years and who saw how devastated I was) that I didn’t want to watch a movie about suicide and that I would rather not go into detail about Anthony Bourdain’s hanging, she told me that she “had forgotten about my nephew and that I might still be sensitive to this.” Wow.
I have kept new relationships here on a fairly superficial level because I worry about what will happen when they know this part of my life. I just don’t want to deal with the anger, disappointment, sadness, etc., etc., that comes with some people’s response to this type of tragedy. In many ways, I have made peace with taking time to assess the new people in my life in terms of figuring out who seems like they can handle the information compassionately and, honestly, who is in the “deserves to know” category.
But I do feel like I am living a double life at work–I am a counselor at a rural public health clinic, so the topic of suicide comes up with some regularity. On one level, I feel like I know things they should know about this topic, but I am hesitant to reveal this part of my life. Some of the worst experiences I have had with being pathologized about my grief have been with friends who were therapists, and I don’t want to deal with the “professional sympathy,” the knowing looks, the concern that I am “not handling this well.” And I don’t really want to start crying in front of them–some would fine with this but others, not so much.
I guess I was just wondering if you could speak to the topic of vulnerability, telling our story to new people, and dealing with the potential for another heartbreak when we tell our story to a new friend and get a weird or terrible response.
Megan: Hi Chris! So many good questions here. First, to your old friend who “forgot” about your nephew’s death – that really is a big relational slip up there. I mean, people are human. They tend to forget things that aren’t “theirs.” It’s stunning to us, on the receiving end, because we never forget. How is it possible that someone who saw the devastation first-hand can simply – forget. And not only that, but also be surprised that you’d still… be sensitive. IT’S BEEN UNDER THREE YEARS! Of course you’re sensitive to images and stories about death by suicide.
So – in this situation, we’ve got a simple failure of awareness from a friend we think really should know better. The drag is that humans often don’t know better. What I hope for, here, is that a friend like this can hear your experience, can really listen to your disappointment, and understand that they need to be more sensitive to YOU.
On to your other questions and reflections on protecting your story, taking time to discern who deserves to hear this part of your life. It IS a strange place to be – living that double life. I remember that well – not saying something feels disrespectful to the person who died, and also, in some ways, to yourself. Sharing the information comes with its own challenges – once you insert that information into a conversation, the conversation changes. What was once getting to know you small talk is now…. different. How will people respond? How will this information change their view of you? How might it shift the direction of any new friendships or connections?
And then there’s the added piece you mention: your colleagues are therapists. I’ve mentioned this before – therapists are some of the absolute WORST in responding to grief. It makes sense to me that you’re wary.
So here are my thoughts on this: first, if it were me, I’d remind myself daily that this is hard, and that there’s no one right answer.
No time is the right time to share this intimate information. I’d remind myself that I have skills – both in recognizing when someone might be a good risk and when they aren’t, and in handling a situation that goes south if I guessed wrong.
You might map out a decision tree for yourself: when do I find myself tempted to share this story? In what situations do I feel my knowledge would be useful? If my knowledge feels clinically helpful or useful, what are some ways I might share my knowledge and still keep my inner-most self protected? And finally, what are some things I might do, should I share my story and feel dismissed, judged, or shamed in response?
Knowing how you might respond in these situations can go a long way to reduce your fears about what could happen.
Remember that you don’t have to educate anyone on the proper way to respond to grief unless you want to.
A simple, ‘that’s not information I discuss in public” is a fantastic response to pressures to share more than you’re willing to at that time.
Christine: Thanks so much for that. I feel like there is so much bad information about suicide, so much ignorance about grief, that sometimes I feel enormous pressure to educate people (especially therapists). I guess I also feel like I owe it to my nephew to make a difference somehow so other families don’t have to go through this hell. In the process, I forget that it is OK to take care of myself and not share if it means leaving myself vulnerable to people who aren’t going to handle the information well. I like the idea of mapping out the decision tree in advance and have a “go to” when their response is intrusive or strange.
Megan: Yes! Wanting to share your knowledge is wonderful. Making a difference, in honor of your nephew, is a beautiful thing. AND: you get to choose when you educate others.
You get to choose when you share that part of your heart.
Raising awareness on your own terms and in your own timing is also honoring your nephew.
Expressing your boundaries is a way of changing the world, just as much as speaking directly about death.You get to choose when you share this part of your heart - the story of your grief. Expressing your boundaries is a way of changing the world, just as much as speaking directly about death. Click To Tweet
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How about you? Have you felt like you lead a double life – with only one that includes your grief? How do you decide if it’s time to tell someone about your loss? Have you come up with effective ways to deal with feeling pressured to talk about your grief? Others in this community can learn from your experiences.