Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You’re listening to episode 38, titled, “The Family That Gossips Together.” This week I want to take a few moments to acknowledge that our families are totally complicated. Not one of us has a completely healthy situation. And at any given moment, we have all contributed to the unhealth of our family dynamics. But when we are grieving, it’s really natural to be curious. If someone in our family is hurting, it makes sense that we would ask questions and try to figure out what the problem might be so we can solve it, right? And while this is usually done with the best of intentions, we all have at least one story of when it spiraled and fell apart pretty quickly. So let’s dig into how to handle life, our family, and grief when it does.
First of all, what’s the point of gossip and why are we talking about it on a grief podcast? Great question – I would love to tell you. First of all, it’s really easy to frame gossip as simply asking curious questions. As grievers, we want to curious, engaged people in our own stories. We want to be available and curious, holding space for the stories of others. These are great characteristics! But when we are bearing witness to said stories, the conversation can quickly become unloving. When we ask questions of a story when the person is not present, we think we are gaining insight on how to show up when really, we’re creating conversation that will inevitably cause more grief and greater distance. This is where we get really comfortable with prescriptions and shoulds and offering advice based on information that we’ve made assumptions about instead of just waiting for the story from the source.
I find this happens more frequently with family and friends we don’t see very often. Sometimes family just falls to the wayside because they’re not living close enough to participate in our daily lives. So when we finally get a chance to catch up, it’s natural to be inquisitive and ask for updates. Maybe we feel obligated to catch them up on all the details, as if that makes up for being far apart. That has certainly been the case for me!
But this is where we have a decision to make. Depending on who we are, and who is asking the questions, we might not feel quite safe. If you’re listening to this show, it’s likely that you’re in the middle of your own healing adventure. And when we heal, we start to build boundaries and identify family patterns we’re no longer comfortable engaging. The pain of no longer knowing what to say to a family member is so real. Suddenly we’re the ones acting strangely, or who’ve changed – as if changing and healing isn’t the natural order of things.
I think identifying our comfort level with the family members we’re going to see before we arrive is a generous gift to ourselves, and to them, to be honest. I’ve stepped into so many family functions over the years, anxious and anticipating chaos rather than giving myself a chance to breathe and have a plan for self-compassion before arrival. Giving ourselves permission ahead of time to keep certain details private is a healthy and helpful boundary. Maybe your boundary needs to include other people acting as a buffer, or choosing to limit any substances to help keep your inhibitions intact. There are many ways we can set our own internal boundaries that align with how we want to respond when others cross a boundary we’ve set.
Let’s play this out for a moment, and pretend that the person we are going to see isn’t a safe place for us anymore. We can take this time call realignment back into our whole selves – mind, heart, body, and spirit. Healing might look like finding movement in our thoughts toward hope, our feelings toward warmth, our bodies toward peace, and our spirits toward connection.
My favorite way to set the boundary is to purposefully choose quote-unquote “gossip” that is positive. It’s typically harmful, right? Talking about people behind their backs so others think unfavorably of them. When someone is chasing down a juicy piece of gossip, they’re reinforcing the narrative that this person is already not to their standards as a human. That’s not a fire I’m willing to fuel. And while it might feel like camaraderie to collectively trash someone, the family that gossips together reinforces toxicity that prevents any level of intimacy or healthy community to flourish. In those arenas, it’s no wonder we’re not sharing our daily lives together.
The grace I can show to the gossip hound in my family is subversive because I guarantee you will disappoint them with only positive reports. It’s going to take a lot of energy out of me to ensure that any updates I share are loving and honoring of the person in question, as well as the person asking the questions! The last thing any of us want to create is a deeper rift – if we’re here, talking about grief and finding the connections to our families of origin, it’s likely that we already carry a great burden of finding health for ourselves and our families. That just means I need to answer any questions exactly the same way if they were standing next to me: With honesty and honor at the front of every conversation.
I know this isn’t easy. It wasn’t meant to be. It never will be. I still catch myself slipping into invalid criticism without thinking, and have to choose to backtrack and apologize. Yes, to actually apologize to the person. “Wait a minute, I just spoke out of turn. What I said about them wasn’t loving or kind, and I owe them better.”
Have you ever apologized for breaking your own boundary mid conversation? Because listen – that is one of the fastest ways to demonstrate your healing journey and call others into healing with you. Intentionally engaging humility and growth in the moment of the mess is an invitation to a new conversation. Even if that means this person goes off to gossip about you and the way you’ve changed, it will still be worthwhile, because the family members who can grow with you will hear that type of gossip and know exactly who you’re becoming. And being seen as your true self emerges is a beautiful thing for family to witness.
I had a staff member on my team once who was, and still is, one of the kindest people on the this green earth. She was generous, gentle, and fierce with her boundaries. Once, she recounted a story of a time when her friend expressed astonishment over how my staff member treated others. She said her friend did not understand how she was always ready with a kind word, an encouragment, or even willing to walk away from gossip or slander. And my staff member said something along the lines of, “I was raised to be quiet when I had nothing kind to say.” She giggled, but it made me consider something different.
I think we’ve all heard the adage “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” even if our homelife didn’t embody that ideal when we were kids. But how many of us take the time to speak loudly when the kind word is necessary? If the only thing running through your head is critical, pausing to consider the value of your comment is meaningful and important. But imagine what could shift in your relationships and your family if you saw the opportunity to encourage and you took it? Not with spiritual bypassing or toxic positivity – but with a sincere acknowledgement of the life journey this person has walked, and continues to work through? That’s the glue that holds a family together. That’s the way we can create healthy and shared boundaries that protect everyone at the dinner table, always.
Thank you for listening to episode 38 of Restorative Grief. This brief episode means a lot to me. I think our families are sources of so much confusion around our grief stories, and gossip seems to exponentially expand the very divides we want to cross. If you’re in a situation with family where you’re not safe to show up, push back, or be honest about your story, please make the best decision for you and stay safe. But if you’re in a season of family life where your story of healing is ready to be shared – even in part – then focusing your conversations about one another on the hopeful, the encouraging, the edifying, and the honest is the best way to promote reconciliation in your family. It will be hard, and yes – some people will say you’re not fun anymore because you won’t talk trash with them. But remember – you’re healing. You don’t want trash anymore. You’re chasing treasure.
If this is your first time listening to Restorative Grief, welcome! I hope this week’s conversation opens up a new avenue of hope in your thoughts about family members or even friendships that carry a toxic narrative in your life. Please take a moment to subscribe, leave your reviews on Apple podcasts, and consider sharing this episode on your social media. All of this helps the people who need grief support the most find our work.
One last thing, before you go. Please remember, the only solution for grief is to do the work of grieving. Thank you for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Links + Resources from this episode: