Monday, July 22, 2013

"Lower your expectations of others."

The literature for suicide survivors tells us to lower our expectations of other people’s response to our pain and accept that what they say or do is what they are able to offer at this time. We are told that if we can accept this, we will not be so easily disappointed. Everyone, including family members, grieves in their own way and on their own timetable. I see the truth in all this. But head and heart are on different tracks right now.

A friend advised me to visit relatives with zero expectations, and I tried. I did OK with the usual family joking around; I probably appeared normal. But later, I realized how much strain I’d been under with all that smiling and small talk. Not one family member asked how I was feeling, unless questions about work are a safe way of asking that. Not one shared any memory of N, even in passing, although my husband and I signaled it was OK to talk about by mentioning him several times. When we made a toast at dinner to N, “who should have been here with us and who we all love and miss,” there was an awkward silence after a somber clink of glasses. 

It felt as if N had never lived and as if the tragedy of his death had never happened. This made me furious. I know I’m supposed to be tolerant. I know I’m supposed to understand other people’s need to keep sorrow and discomfort at bay and distract themselves from painful thoughts. I know I’m supposed to have empathy for their not knowing what to say. But damn it, we parents of the child who is gone are the chief mourners. Why should we have to worry about other people’s needs? Why don’t they show more concern with our needs? 

It continues to take a lot of energy to figure out my needs, I guess because they are in such flux. (So how can I expect others to figure them out?) In the early weeks, I needed to have someone around every day who could listen and comfort. And I needed to unburden myself at least a couple times a week with major, 25-tissue crying fits, after which I needed to hold someone. Gradually, I realized I didn’t need so many people around; in fact, too many people trying to have coffee with me or take walks with me was draining. 

More recently, I’ve learned that as long as I am able to freely express my grief with a small number of friends, family, and therapists, I do not need to go into it with everyone I see. I do not need to bring those expectations of talking about N, his death and our loss into every social encounter. I can be grateful for the precious people who welcome talking about it, but I do not have to resent others who cannot, as long as I have some around me who can. Maybe I got frustrated with relatives because it had been too long since having one of those precious talks. I felt angry, hurt and disappointed. Instead of zero expectations, I had zero tolerance. 

Maybe having zero expectations of others is asking too much of myself and fellow suicide survivors. We need to own all the conflicted feelings that come along with this unpredictable journey.

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