Unmet Expectations and Grief
The problem is that you, the grieving person, don’t know what you need and your loved ones don’t know how to help. This disparity often leads to a lot of conflict and unmet expectations, on both sides.
Throughout our experiences with my cancer and our child-loss, we have experienced a lot of unmet expectations and conflict in our relationships with others. We have wrongly expected that people should only use the words that are helpful and encouraging, while providing the exact support that we need from them, even though we, ourselves, had no clue what we needed.
Part of the struggle is that when people are in the middle of processing grief, their emotions are all over the place. And sometimes, the very last discussion we ever want to have is to confront someone on how they have hurt us through their words, actions, or inactions. Imagine how much more difficult this is for the grieving person. The reality is that all too often, a grieving person will allow these hurts to build up because these issues become secondary to the pain that caused their grief to begin with. When this happens, it can take weeks, months, even years, to sort through the myriad of pain and hurt caused from the lack of support they felt while they were grieving!
My encouragement to anyone who is grieving is that when you are hurt by words, action, or inaction, to discuss your hurt as soon as you can with the person who hurt you. If your loved one doesn’t know how you are feeling, they will likely continue using similar words, actions, or inactions, which will likely lead to more conflict in your relationship, and cause a bigger divide.
To help you do this, here are 4 steps I use to communicate my hurt with others because of unmet expectations:
1. Discuss what the unknown expectation was to begin with. I didn’t realize how important it was for me to have people acknowledge the first year of our daughter’s Birth and Death Day, until only a few people contacted us on “Kylie’s Day” to let us know they were thinking about our family.
2. Get to the heart of why the expectation was unmet. I was hurt because it seemed like people either didn’t remember this day that was so tragic for our family, or didn’t care, neither of which felt very good.
3. Figure out if the expectation needs to be adjusted or if the unmet expectation was simply a learning experience. For me, in this circumstance, I needed to do both – adjust my expectation and learn from it. When we brought up our hurt with people we thought would have remembered to call or write to us on Kylie’s Day, some of them remembered, but were afraid to call for fear of bringing up a hurtful memory. They didn’t know if we wanted people to call, if we wanted to be left alone, if we wanted to talk, or if we wanted to be reminded. We were able to talk immediately about our hurt and move forward in our relationships with a better understanding of where the other person was coming from.
4. Adjust your actions in the future. This is where I took what I learned from this unmet expectation. I now do my best to make sure that when someone I know experiences the death of a child that I write down important dates for them on my calendar. Sometimes, there are separate birth and death days, sometimes what is important is the original due date of their child, the day they miscarried, the day they had to give back a child they were intending to adopt, or the day the family buried their child. Then, I do my best to connect with these family and friends on these days, because the truth is that families hurting over the loss of a child, DO want family and friends to remember and acknowledge these milestones because it helps them feel like their child is loved.
Question: When you were grieving, did you have expectations of other people that were unmet? If so, how did you deal with this hurt?
Author of Good Grief!, Erica McNeal is a three-time cancer survivor, who has also experienced the loss of five children. With sixteen years of experience in Youth, Marriage, and Women’s Ministries, Erica is passionate about equipping people to love others well through difficult times. She uses her experiences to teach people what not to say, what to say, and how to help when people are hurting. You can follow her on twitter: @toddanderica, or visit her website: www.ericamcneal.com.