Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You are listening to episode 44 titled, “Dismantling Toxic Grief Support.” This is a little bit of a different episode because we are a bit unfamiliar with the idea of toxic support, are we not? We know toxic positivity but it shifts a little bit when it applies specifically to grief and so this week, we are going to talk about five ways it can show up in our role as a grief supporter and how we can disarm the toxicity and retrain ourselves and others to do no harm.
This week’s episode is really for the grief supporters among us. We know that’s all of us, OK. Obviously we at some point are all in a role of supporting someone going through loss. If you are a griever right now, it’s OK to skip this episode. Just bookmark it for the next time you are in a supporting role. Toxic grief support is similar to toxic positivity in that we have this idea of what healthy grieving looks like. A lot of the time, you can tell someone is going to step into a roll of toxic grief support when they use the good and bad binary. For example, maybe you disclosed that you’ve been sleeping a lot more often than usual and haven’t been able to find the motivation you need to stick with your gym schedule. The response? “Ooh that’s not good.”
Or maybe the response is something along the lines of, “That’s really bad for you to skip. You know that those routines are really good for your health, mentally and physically. You need to be doing those things.”
Listen, there are going to be people in your life that you have invited into a corrective space just like that. Those are people who you’ve been clear with about what is OK to say when you are confessing that something isn’t going as you hoped. I know in my life, there have absolutely been seasons where I’ve skipped my gym regiment. But I also know that those with permission to speak into my life know better than to use shame and point out that I’m “making bad choices.”
OK, so let’s get into what toxic grief support looks like. Essentially, it is the decision we make to cast judgments against someone else’s grief process because we don’t feel the way the are grieving is appropriate. Maybe our friends can’t meet the expectations we’ve set for ourselves as grievers, so we are inappropriately holding them to our standard. We have a lot of cultural norms around grief and grieving that are ingrained in our behaviors – it’s why we avoid discomfort, offer platitudes, other minimizing behaviors.
I think you are familiar with toxic grief support now, so let’s talk about how it might be showing up in the way we support others. Have you ever encouraged someone to just move on? Because that’s toxic. If your experience showed you that grief took a certain period of time, that is a truth for you for that specific grief event. It won’t be true next time grief enters your story. Would you like to know how I know that? Because you also know it. Deep down in your guts.
You’ve experienced active grieving for certain losses that lasted a day. Some have lasted years. Even as a grief professional, my own experiences with loss are wildly erratic when it comes to the timeframes. And we have no right to insist a person move on. Not to mention the fact that ‘move on’ is a problematic statement all in its own.
Maybe you’ve started describing your friend as overly dramatic or too emotional. Maybe they have bigger reactions right now because all of their emotions are very raw and right under the surface. What seems like an overreaction to you might simply be an overstimulated nervous system asking for help. But if you are too busy judging how they are experiencing grief in their life, how would you be able to help without causing more harm?
Another way we demonstrate toxic grief support is by criticizing the details or the information shared by the griever. Remember that phrase TMI that we all used to talk about in like the 90s? Maybe you think someone is sharing their grief story because they need attention. Maybe it makes you uncomfortable, so you think it’s inappropriate. Do you criticize that person?
I do want to take a moment here and point out that there are legitimate times to notice what a person is sharing in a public setting. Context is really important with this specific toxic grief support moment. We don’t need to criticize people openly for sharing their story if it makes us uncomfortable. We don’t need to criticize people in general and expect change but that’s another conversation. But depending on our role in this person’s life, this might be a very good time for us to ask some curious questions about what type of support they are receiving in their lives outside of this social setting. You may be in a position of trust with them and that’s why they’re sharing. If you’ve given someone permission to be this raw, than being critical in the moment would make you a very toxic grief supporter.
This next demonstration of toxic grief support is so common, we may not even recognize it as harmful. But oftentimes we criticize people we know who are grieving because they are not being as expressive as we expect. Again, they failed to meet our expectations. They’re crying too much or they’re not crying enough. They haven’t cried at all! Maybe they don’t feel sad that they’ve experienced a loss period maybe they feel relief. A few interviews back we spoke with bill Cohen, who works with caregivers to help them create support for themselves as they take care of ailing family members. It is not uncommon for caregivers to feel immense relief when the person they are caring for finally dies. The buildup of anticipatory grief, the exhaustion through the illness, the unending demand on their time and emotional and physical resources all coalesce to exhaust caregivers that they’ve done all of their grieving before the death even came. of course there will be grief after the event but it will be different, and too easy to condemn if you are not carefully considering the way that you treat grievers.
Lastly, we tend to ghost people when we feel like our support was rejected. Or maybe you reject them because you have no understanding of why they are still grieving. This goes back to timeframe but this also speaks to your willingness to be patient with process. There’s no timeline on grief and we know that it is cyclical in experience, but treating a friend as no longer worthy of your time or attention because they are failing to be who you think they should be is among the most toxic grief support that exists. Because this goes beyond simply minimizing their fears and pain or offering a platitude. This is flat out rejecting their perception of the world and their work to find a new sense of self in their new normal.
I realize this has been a little bit of an intense episode, so please hear my heart. I want grievers in your life to feel completely safe with you. I want you to become such a haven of comfort and compassion, that you are completely comfortable running into the chaos with the people that you love. Not out of an obligation or social pressure. I want you to be that curious heart in someone’s life where they know they can be safe to have no answers, to have no sense of up from down, and to have No Fear of judgment.
If you relate to some of these toxic grief support examples, here are three things I want you to do.
Number one – I want you to keep listening to this podcast. Seeking support as a grief supporter and on behalf of yourself as a griever present or future, is going to ingrain those helpful behaviors and attitudes toward loss. By practicing a better way, you mitigate harm against yourself and others every time you encounter grief. And that’s true whether or not you are actively supporting someone’s grief process or simply observing from a distance.
Number two – I want you to learn how to listen to others with patience for their process. I am inherently an impatient person. I love progress and I love growth and I struggle with stillness. But I have no right to hear another person’s grief story and criticize or condemn their conclusions or their experience. If I want to be a truly authentic grief supporter, I need to listen to the person who is grieving with curiosity and compassion.
And number three – I want you to ask appropriate questions when you are invited to do so. What do I mean by appropriate questions? The first and most appropriate question is, “May I ask you some questions?” or put another way, “Do you want me to ask you some questions so you can talk about this a bit more, or do you just need me to hear you and hold some sacred space for you to process?”
Let me tell you, there is nothing that upsets a well-intentioned grief supporter more than being told to shut up. That’s the power of centering ourselves in someone else’s story. We think we have the answer like how long grief should last or what spiritual practices are the most beneficial for grievers. But the truth is we only know what worked well for us. Maybe we’re not even sure what works for us but we googled it really fast so we probably found the best advice, right?
If you are given the opportunity to ask questions, appropriate questions are necessary. That means not asking if someone was vaccinated, or whether or not they were sick. Appropriate questions fall under the category of, “Can you tell me more about them? What does support look like for you right now?”
Maybe an appropriate question would be investigating what role they would like you to play in their grief process. It turns out, becoming compassionately curious about what this person needs or wants to share is the most powerful position of support you can take for a griever. And really, that’s the only thing we’re trying to do when we inadvertently get toxic with our grief support. We just want to be an encouragement. So let’s learn what it means to truly be an encouragment by listening with more compassion, curiosity, and patience for the process of others.
Thank you for listening to episode 44 of Restorative Grief. Toxic grief support is really easy to fall into. And that’s simply because we are not always mindful about the words that come out of our mouths. Toxic positivity, minimizing, centering, and all the other things we have talked about time and again our versions of our own discomfort manifesting to the detriment of the people we love who are hurting. So like I said, whether we are grieving right now or simply in a position to support someone else, doing the work equips us to make helpful decisions and kinder comments when we finally find ourselves face to face with loss.
If this is your first time listening to Restorative Grief, thank you for being here. Welcome! I hope that you got something really meaningful out of this conversation. Also, we do have a premium subscription available! For just $4.99 a month, you will gain access to resources, one-on-one coaching questions, and exclusive interviews with grievers and grief professionals and everybody in between.
With the exception of my one-on-one coaching practice, all of the grief resources I create are free. I’ve been doing this online grief work for two years and the new subscription option is your best way to support this work and continue to keep it going for the people who need it most. And I’ll be honest, there are way more people that need it than I can even reach so supporting the podcast means the messages and the insight can get as far as possible. With that said, whether you subscribe or not, I hope you will leave a 5 star review wherever you listen to this show and consider sharing this episode with someone you can ask some curious questions with about the content.
And 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:
- Interview with Bill Cohen on caring for the caregivers
- Learn more about Toxic Positivity
- Join The Restorative Grief Project, a private online grief coaching community
- Listen to this episode on Spotify
- Snag a copy of my book, Restorative Grief
- Connect with me on Twitter or Instagram @MandyCapehart