One of the more insidious parts of our culture is a tendency to view almost everything as a result of our choices. For example, when good things happen to you, it means you made good choices… but when bad things happen, it’s your fault too.
Everyone knows that bad choices can sometimes have consequences. But in the context of grief, many people find that society in general is looking for a way to blame their loved ones’ death on him or her. Some examples might include:
• Asking if they smoked
• Asking if they were wearing a seatbelt
• Implying that a change of diet would have made a difference
It’s not just hurtful to have your loved one blamed for their death—many people also feel like there’s an implicit blame directed at them, the survivor. “If only you had made him eat more vegetables, he wouldn’t have gotten cancer/a heart attack/stroke.”
There are some deaths in which the deceased was clearly at fault in some way—and even in those cases, comments like this are unhelpful and hurtful. But they can be bewildering for people whose loved one died in a way that was totally unpreventable or unforeseeable.
Fear of Death
If people in your life are making comments about what your loved one should have done—or what you should have done—to prevent their death, it’s useful to take a deep breath and remember that this, like many other hurtful comments people make, is about their own insecurities and fears, not reality. As a society, we like to think of life and death as something we can control. If death touches someone who makes all the right choices… well, it could come for them too. And that’s uncomfortable.
Crafting a Response
Responding to these types of comments is hard, especially if it’s coming from someone you can’t ignore or cut out of your life. Here are some tips for managing these conversations:
• Stick to facts. “The doctor said X; the police explained X about the accident”
• Make the conversation short and don’t engage or offer extended explanations
• Be blunt if necessary. It’s ok to say you’re not prepared to talk about it
Grief and Guilt
These types of comments are so hurtful because chances are you’ve been asking yourself something similar since the moment your loved one died. It’s common to feel guilt after the death of the loved one, and to examine your relationship not only for ways you could have treated them better, but also for warning signs of disease or things you could have done to prevent their death. Moving past the guilt is an important part of healing after a loved one die. Once you’re able to forgive yourself for any real or imagined oversights, it becomes easier to handle those who want to find fault with you or your loved one.
Part of the reason we feel guilt when a loved one dies is that we are products of this society too—and many of us have very much internalized the idea that bad things only happen as a result of bad choices. If you’ve had a loved one die though, you know intellectually that isn’t true. Working with a professional counselor can help you get past self-blame and find ways to handle people in your life who want to find fault where there was none.
Photo credit: Pixabay, NickyPe