Articles: Helping Others

It's Not My Fault

“It’s not my fault. I blame … !”

Have you noticed the apparent increase in “naming, blaming and shaming” these days? It happens in politics, in national and business matters, and perhaps most sadly in personal and family relationships.

It seems the trend is to refer to the “wounded child”, with references to “dysfunctional families”. People sometimes define themselves as “a survivor of …” or an “adult child of …” followed by a long list of traumatic experiences.

Sadly, such admittedly difficult circumstances are often blamed as the cause of a litany of perceived human limitations and misery, which is then used as an excuse for inaction, or worse, for unacceptable social behaviour.

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

I am not criticizing the “Recovery Movement” with these remarks. It has helped millions of people around the world acknowledge problems and discover possible solutions, and as a grief counselor, I am part of that movement. That’s the good news.

At the same time, however, I feel many “self-help gurus” make two fundamental mistakes. First is their tendency to “pathologize” situations by defining dysfunctionality and maladaptive lifestyles as “an illness”, resulting in victims “blaming the disease.”  “It’s not my fault” is the oft heard cry. “My parents, my circumstances, my environment or someone else is to blame”. Thus the responsibility for the problem and for the solution is often diverted.

Perhaps the second misconception in many interventions is to deal with human struggles in ways that are far too general. There are no generic cookie cutter solutions to the human dilemma. At the heart of every truly helpful, healing relationship (whether personal or professional) is the capacity for one person to genuinely listen and gradually come to understand the unique experience of the others. Pat answers, slick techniques and even good advice don’t always help in the long run.

Admittedly, traumatic reactions and serious mental issues do occur and need careful qualified attention. However a myopic tendency to pathologize every single human problem may result in a failure to appreciate a most important truth, namely: that most of us as human beings have tremendous adaptive resources. Many survived an abusive childhood, or a problematic environment, and we could add, “regardless”. Millions of people live satisfying, productive, healthy, functional lives, in spite of difficult early experiences.

This is not denial. It is instead a fundamental belief in the triumph of the human spirit. For when you look closely at many people whom others label as “disabled”, you more often see their strengths, and appreciate and admire their persistent, determined attempts to adapt and survive. Once you understand where a person is coming from, you can begin to enable them to mobilize their inner strengths and resources. We may not be responsible for what happens to us, but we can, and need to take responsibility for what we DO about what has happened to us.

In other words, no circumstance, however tragic or difficult, has the power to define “who I am” unless we choose or decide to give it that power.

My commitment to the premise that “grief is not a disease or a ‘mental health disorder’”, or indeed “an abnormal reaction”, is well documented. I hold an unshakeable conviction that grief generally should not be understood according to a “sickness model”, but validated as a natural human 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 legitimize the process of grief, and to “normalize” the reactions that grief manifests. When people realize that they are not “crazy”, they open themselves up to explore the feelings and discover how grief is, in fact, the very healing process they need.  Admittedly, “normalizing” must never involve “minimizing”. Losing someone loved is a most difficult human experience, and nothing should take away from how hard it can be.

In practical terms, the following principles apply:

  • View the loss from the griever’s unique perspective
  • Give them “permission” to grieve their loss
  • Listen nonjudgmentally with acceptance, and recognize the importance

          of “the gift of presence”

  • Provide the griever with information about the grieving process
  • Ensure the griever understands their grief reactions will be unique
  • Allow the bereaved to cry and cry, talk and talk, review and review
  • Remember that 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.