“It’s not my fault!”

“It’s not my fault. I blame…!”

There is a lot of naming, blaming and shaming in many quarters these days. It happens politically, nationally, in business matters and, perhaps most sadly, in personal and family relationships.

We hear a lot of talk these days about the “wounded child” and “dysfunctional families”. There is a growing trend for people to define themselves as “a survivor of …” or an “adult child of …” followed by a long list of traumatic experiences.

Sadly, such situations are often called the cause of perceived human limitations and misery, then used as an excuse for inaction, or worse, unacceptable social behaviour.

It also appears that for every addiction, behavioural issue or ailment, there is a recovery programme or self-help guide; a website, book or video; a life coach or counsellor to solve “the problem”, often at considerable cost.

I am not criticising the “Recovery Movement” with these remarks. It has helped millions around the world acknowledge problems and discover possible solutions. As a grief counsellor, I am part of that movement.

At the same time, however, I feel many “self-help gurus” make two fundamental mistakes. First: their tendency to pathologise, defining dysfunctionality and maladaptive lifestyles as “an illness”, resulting in victims “blaming the disease”.

“It’s not my fault – my parents, my circumstances, my environment or someone else is to blame.” Thus the responsibility for the problem and the solution is often diverted. Perhaps the second misconception in many interventions is to deal with human struggles too generally.

There are no generic solutions to the human dilemma. At the heart of every truly helpful, healing relationship (personal or professional) is the capacity for one person to genuinely listen and come to understand the unique experience of others. Pat answers, slick techniques and even good advice don’t always help in the end.

Traumatic reactions and serious mental issues do occur and need careful qualified attention, but a myopic tendency to pathologise every human problem may result in failure to appreciate a most important truth: that most human beings have tremendous adaptive resources.

Many survived an abusive childhood or a difficult environment, “regardless”. Millions of people live satisfying, productive, healthy, functional lives, in spite of difficult early experiences.

This is not denial. It is a fundamental belief in the triumph of the human spirit. When you look closely at many people others label “disabled”, you more often see their strengths, and admire their persistent, determined attempts to adapt and survive.

Once you understand where a person is coming from, you can begin to help them mobilise their inner strengths and resources. We may not be responsible for what happens to us, but we can, and must, take responsibility for what we do about it.

In other words, no circumstance, however tragic or difficult, can define “who I am” unless we let it.

My commitment to the premise that “grief is not a disease, mental health disorder or abnormal reaction” is well documented. I hold an unshakeable conviction that grief generally should not be understood according to a ‘sickness model’, but a natural reaction to any significant loss. As Queen Elizabeth wisely said, echoed more recently by Prince William: “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

The key for anyone seeking to support a grieving person is to be able to legitimise grief, to normalise the reactions grief manifests. When people realise that they are not “crazy”, they open themselves up to discover how grief is, in fact, the very healing process they need. Admittedly, normalising must never involve minimizing. Losing someone is a most difficult human experience, and nothing should take away from that.

In practical terms, the following principles apply:

  • View the loss from the griever’s perspective
  • Give them permission to grieve
  • Listen with acceptance, and recognise the importance of “the gift of presence”
  • Give the griever information about the process
  • Ensure they understand their reactions will be unique
  • Let them cry and cry, talk and talk, review and review
  • Remember, no one can take away the pain
  • Convey the expectation that the griever will successfully complete the tasks of mourning and that the pain will subside.
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