There is no right thing to say to someone who is grieving. “I learned that no matter what someone says, it is the wrong thing.” My wise friend Laura told me this shortly after her lover, then her mother, died last year.
When Dan, my best friend since I was fifteen, died this Fall, and then my dad died seven weeks later, I often thought of Laura’s warning.
“Remember, no matter what someone says, it is the wrong thing,” I half-jokingly reminded Brad, Dan’s husband, when he would comment that he hadn’t heard from people acknowledging Dan’s death and offering condolences. “Whatever they say, it won’t be right,” I remind him (and myself), “and so we have no right to fault them for not speaking, either.”
As I wrote and officiated three memorial services during those seven weeks, I thought of the pain and anger that can be foisted upon the grieving. The world of the grieving can be intimate and narrow and harmful words can ricochet like bullets, causing repeat wounds. People mean well, but their words can often rob the grieving of peace.
Grief, of course, is personal. Yet, I am dumbstruck by its self-centeredness; surprised by how much I am grieving not only Dan’s death and his family’s loss, but of how much grieving my loss of Dan is about me. Brad summarizes this stark self-consideration by saying, “I feel guilty thinking about me when I think of what Dan went through.”
In the first memorial service for Dan’s family and close friends, I acknowledged our desire for tribal community, for recognizing and relishing in our shared self-interest. “We grieve for Dan, and we grieve for ourselves, because we know that our own lives will never be the same without him. We come together to comfort each other.”
In the immediate aftermath of Dan’s death, I was struck by my extreme lack of patience. I wanted only to speak with Brad, and with my own husband, Tom. They knew both the confines of my world and the expansiveness of my grief. I was relieved at the realization that it was taking all my energy to be present for each of them, for my mother, and for my clients. So my narcissism of grief evolved to self-protection. Explaining that I had “limited bandwidth” allowed me an “out” from conversations and activities.
My bandwidth was limited in both capacity and context. I was in what Cheryl Strayed calls The Land of the Dead, and others were in The Land of the Living. Those in The Land of the Living couldn’t really see or hear me. It wasn’t that they didn’t understand grief — of course, many had grieved themselves — but the distance now was too great for clear and meaningful communication. It was safer for all if I limited contact, if I choose to focus on myself.
Some people were attracted to my grieving, sensing availability to project their own grief and have their own needs met. And then there are people who prey on the grieving, exhibiting a disturbingly different narcissism. People whose professional responsibility involves interaction with the grieving, and who seize that opportunity to elevate their own self-importance.
Two days before my father died, the hospice social worker asked to meet with my mother and me. Among other questions, she asked if we had a plan “should he be released and go home.” In unison, my mother and I replied that Walter was not going to go home. The social worker insisted that he could be released, despite admitting that she had not consulted with the medical director, and despite our assuring her that Walter was, indeed, in hospice to die.
The next morning, the hospice chaplain summoned me into a claustrophobic room to ask, “What’s going on in your life?” Baffled, I reminded her that my father was dying across the hall. She then informed me that I had “upset the social worker” and, obviously, needed her comfort. She, too, insisted that my father could go home, despite the doctor having told my family minutes earlier that palliative sedation had begun and there was now “no turning back.”
When I attempted to assure the chaplain that my family was my source of comfort, and we were focused on my dad dying in peace and with dignity, she repeatedly lamented that I would not accept her comfort. It occurred to me that the chaplain’s and the social worker’s concept of comfort was peddling false hope, and selfishly seeking admiration for doing so. My protective narcissism kicked in: I was not going to indulge their arrogant, narcissistic need for attention. Their potent narcissism was painful.
“Here’s the deal. The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed — to be seen, heard and companioned exactly as it is. When we make that kind of deep bow to the soul of a suffering person, our respect reinforces the soul’s healing resources, the only resources that can help the sufferer make it through.”
— Parker Palmer, The Gift of Presence, the Perils of Advice
When my dad died less than a day later, my patience grew even thinner. As a result, my narcissism thickened. I am still reeling from the pain inflicted by the two hospice employees. I have since protected myself by responding to kind inquiries such as, “How are you doing?”, with stern warnings: “I’m doing well, but finding that I have limited patience for people who want to project their assumptions and grief onto me.”
The Narcissism of Grief often cannot be helped: grief is personal and specific. My grief for my father cannot be separated from my grief for my oldest friend. Tom’s maternal aunt and paternal uncle, who died in the weeks between Dan and my dad’s deaths, will forever be grieved in the context of Dan and Walter. The way in which people respond to the grieving is often based in their own experiences with grieving and their worldviews on death.
When a dear friend, herself grieving the recent deaths of both of her parents, responded to my telling her about my being alone with my dad when he died, “It’s the closest thing I can think of to a sacred moment. My heart is connected to yours!”, I reminded myself to be touched by her sharing and generosity, by the intent behind her message. She knows I do not believe in the sacred. But her Land of the Dead is defined by it.
The other day, I lost my patience. Then I realized it was because I was sad. So I asked my niece to play ping pong with me. We talked and laughed and played for some time, and I felt much better. This, to me, was constructive, self-caring narcissism.
I grieve for Dan. I grieve for Brad. I grieve for Tom’s uncle Jim, and his widow Irene, and for their many children and grandchildren. I grieve for my mom, widowed after 57 years of a loving marriage. I grieve for all the people who aren’t able to fully grieve for their losses, the way I am privileged to grieve for mine. And I also grieve for myself, for my loss of friends and family, and the holes and imbalances that remain.
I write this in the hope that when you are grieving and searching for resources, you may stumble upon this essay and find comfort. May my ostensible narcissism create and hold space for yours. It’s okay. Yours is necessary narcissism.
Reprinted with permission from Medium.