Speaking Ill of the Dead

The profile of a person with his finger in front of his lips in a shushing gestureIt has become increasingly obvious over the past few years that figuring out how to make a living is a – if not the – major issue of my life. For those of you who speak astrologese, Saturn in the second house squares my sun. Translated, Saturn represents limitations, the second house concerns self-worth and income, the sun expresses identity, and a square indicates major challenges. Yup, sounds about right.

So the fact that I stayed at my last job only two months is not much of a surprise. It’s more surprising that I took the job in the first place. The pay was very low, the owner was laden with obvious baggage, and the work sounded overwhelming to HSP/introvert-me. But it was close enough to home to walk, and I felt an intuitive impulse to try it anyway. I just had a feeling it would be a worthwhile experience whatever happened.

Piggybank with a large hole going through from one side to the other showing that it's emptyAnd that turned out to be the case. I learned a lot about what I enjoy and need in a job, which is certainly an area in which any new insights are welcome. However, I was already financially behind when I started, and the job never came close to meeting my financial needs, despite representations that were made to me at the start. So it’s back to the food bank. I’m trying to stay optimistic, but it isn’t easy.

One of the things that makes poverty and confusion even more difficult than usual is family conflict in the wake of my father’s recent death. I guess it’s natural for people to focus on a person’s positive attributes after death, since that is what they miss about him. Out of respect for others’ pain, I sat out of that conversation. But my family members could not quite return the favor. Instead, they nudged posthumous accolades about what a great guy he was at me, as if to say, everybody loved him, baby, what’s the matter with you?

Is it so terrible to speak honestly of the dead – and the living?

In answer, I offered to give them a whole lot of excellent and historically verifiable reasons why I feel as I do, but was told that now is not the time. Only a brute would argue with that, but let’s be honest, my inconvenient truths were no more welcome in happier times.

Being the family truth-teller sucks. I am constantly reproached for my lack of loyalty. The irony of this is too, too outrageous. As if I’m a family outsider by my own choice! As if I couldn’t have used a little friendly interest, a sense that someone, somewhere in the world thought I was a worthwhile person, and cared whether I lived or died during the decades I struggled with relentless emotional pain and economic volatility.
A chart of words describing nurturing relationships, shaped like the center of a flower and its petals
My family never did that for me. Their disinterest in me is consistent and vast. They couldn’t tell you what I do for a living, what pastimes I enjoy, who my friends are, where I live, my phone number, my birthday, my favorite color, nothing. Most of them wouldn’t recognize me if they ran into me on the street. And yet they rhapsodize constantly over the importance of family. If it has nothing to do with intimacy or concern, what does that even mean??

An ideogram of a frowning face, with a hand raised palm out in front of it as if warding something offI wish I could stop expecting anything from them. I try, oh, how I try. Rationally, I know that I will get hurt if I interact with family members with an open heart. It’s happened so many times, no matter how I approached them, that expecting any other kind of result makes no sense. My father belittled my pain for years, until I finally had to shut him out of my life to get him out of my head.

But Family gets so much good press. We are barraged with it every day. The way their behavior is the opposite of their words is extremely confusing. And I am, after all, a depressive, much prone to “second-guessing” myself, as one friend calls it.

On my less confident days, I get to thinking that maybe I’m somehow misreading them. Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough. (Maybe my father’s still in my head after all). So I make a tentative overture, and the vicious monster of exclusion rears up its hideous head again like a cheesy horror film.
A strand of barbed wire
Cognitive dissonance after death isn’t just an issue in my family. The mother of one of my high school friends recently passed away. She was an activist, and my Facebook feed has been flooded with praises of her good works. I hadn’t seen her for about 40 years. But I remember her all too well.

One frigid winter night in my tweenhood, she drove me home from a party at her house. She was taking several other partiers home as well, but it was me she singled out, raking me over the coals about expecting a ride from her (it was a 5 minute drive but a 35-minute walk in subzero temperatures) and my mother never taking on chauffeuring duty (my mother didn’t know how to drive, and we couldn’t have afforded a car even if she had). When I tried to defend my mom, she attacked me for “talking back” and turned her vitriol from my mom to me.

A black and white stick figure with a red heart cracked down the middle holding a drooping flowerAs far as I can remember, she drove me home about once a year. Maybe she was crabby about having to go out that late. Maybe she carted other kids around a lot, I don’t know. That she disliked my mother, there was no doubt. But I was an easier target. Being trapped in her car as she verbally battered me, making unjust accusations to which I was not permitted to reply, in front of my friends — it’s not something I can ever forget. I remember her as a woman who bullied children when other adults weren’t there to see. That’s just as real as her public actions. Maybe more so.

So I held back from sending condolences. I couldn’t honestly express regret that she was gone. I figured my silence would go unnoticed in the hubbub. But then I thought about my friend. As slight as our interaction is, she pays more attention to my life than most of my family ever did. And just as she cares, at least a little, about what’s going on with me, even though we haven’t seen each other in decades, I care, too, that she is in pain. I ultimately decided to express my sorrow for her loss, which is something I could honestly say.

But the relentless stream of sentimental nostalgia and praise erasing my very different experience was my father’s death all over again. One family member suggested to me that my experiences with my father were water under the bridge and should be – what, forgotten? or at least, not mentioned – since he was no longer there to discuss them.

A drawing of a scale, with one side much lower than the otherWhere do I even begin with that kind of reasoning? He always acknowledged (but never apologized for) his behavior to me, so I assumed he had been open about it to everyone. Turns out he hadn’t. Which means their whole understanding of him (and of me) is based on decades of misinformation. But they don’t want to know. Never mind that I’m still here.

In Conclusion

This isn’t just a venting session. There are lots of families like mine, sad to say. A friend once told me about his sister, who claimed the rest of the family acted as if she wasn’t there. He said she claimed that once two entire days had passed without anyone in the household saying a word to her. Clearly, my friend did not believe such a thing was possible. It was all too easy for me to imagine, however. When I asked him why he believed she was lying, he was startled. It was obvious that it was completely reflexive for him to discount her, and expect the people around him to do the same.

An enormous  hand presses its thumb down on the head of the silhouette of a person standingMany families have scapegoats, and, since people don’t usually like to see themselves as jerks, they agree to believe that the scapegoat somehow deserves this treatment. If there is someone like this in your family, take a closer look at that agreement. Have you ever really bothered to question the family party line about this person? Assume, just for the sake of argument, that everything this family member says is true, and ask yourself how your own behavior must look – and feel – to them.

And when someone dies, understand that grieving is complicated for family members who had a difficult relationship with the deceased. Don’t expect them to want to join in with fond memories. What the death means to them is that wrongs will never be redressed. Should you ask them to respect your grief by keeping their painful experiences to themselves? I don’t know. Would it seem fair for them to ask you to keep your positive experiences to yourself out of respect for their feelings?

Is it so terrible to speak honestly of the dead – and the living?

Justly integrating different reactions and constructively addressing grievances are among humankind’s greatest challenges. I’ve been talking about personal life, but the same issues are at the core of criminal justice systems the world over. In societies convulsed by genocidal mass insanity, the need of victims to have both the actions and the harms against them publicly acknowledged by the perpetrators has gained new ascendancy.

But it doesn’t always seem like enough, when the damage is done, and the perpetrator suffers less than the victim. We have yet to successfully navigate the quagmire between punishment, justice and revenge. Maybe the best solution isn’t about addressing wrongs after the fact at all, but about learning how to live respectfully enough with each others’ differences that we prevent wrongs from happening in the first place.
A sketch of two transparent human heads facing each other, with the brains connected by curved arrows

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4 thoughts on “Speaking Ill of the Dead

  1. Hi. So much of what you say resonates deeply with me; both the big things and the so-called tiny details. It’s certainly hard for HSPs to manage in such an anti-HSP world – it’s not just that things like jobs and socialising are much harder, even our families & friends can be just as (or far more) damaging… In that case, perhaps the best way is to retreat and heal yourself rather than stay and allow more damage to occur? Not easy at all, for various reasons, but all we can do is try.

    This has been my life experience, too, and I’m still struggling to understand and cope without damaging myself any further. At the moment, I can’t fathom ever finding employment again… which is terrifying when bills are piling up, etc. You seem like a great writer, but I’m not sure if writing gigs pay any better in your country than in mine (pretty low here). So I don’t know if this helps, but I wanted you to know that I really do feel deeply for you and wish you the very best. Big hugs from across the world.

    • Thank you so much – it is very generous of you to think of me when you are struggling yourself. Hugs back at you :)

      I appreciate the writing compliments, too. The thing is, I only enjoy writing when I write about the things I care deeply about, and am spontaneously interested in. So far, I haven’t found anyone willing to pay me to do that – where’s a patron (or matron) when you need one?

      One of the most useful things I’ve learned from Elaine Aron is that although HSPs easily feel overwhelmed, that doesn’t mean we can’t do stuff.

      Solitude is often my solution too, and it has its rewards, but also its costs. People can’t help me if I hide that I need help (which I habitually do, since bullies are attracted to tears like sharks to blood). But my financial situation has grown too dire to hide, and as a result, help has come from some surprising directions in the past year or two.

      Have you ever heard of Free Range Humans or Barrie Jaeger? I have found both to be useful resources (along with the Clifton Strengths system) for me as an HSP trying to understand what kind of work/life I need.

      • Hi again, thanks much for the thoughtful response & the suggestions, too. I’m with you about the patron/matron thing! That’s truly something that sounds ludicrous in a capitalistic world, but actually makes a lot of sense & used to be a legit option in previous high society life… I do see a “renaissance” of sorts happening for these ideas, but not for a while more..

        However, I’m very glad you have some friends who are willing to help in some ways :) That’s always crucial & not as easy as it should be…

        I’m just trying to keep my spirits up and slowly try to socialise again… Hope you’re keeping well. Take care!

  2. Friendships have been one of the most challenging things for me – only making enough money has been harder. Lately my understanding of friendship has been evolving. For most of my life, I’ve defined friendship as compatibility at the level of soulmate – anything less than that I didn’t count (and soulmates are very rare).

    Lately, people who I would’ve considered superficial acquaintances at best have gone WAY out of their way to help me in major ways when the chips were really down. This has altered my concept of friendship in a way that all the analyzing in the world never could have done. It shouldn’t surprise me – I’ve done the same for others, just because I saw their pain, and I could. But it does surprise me, and I am profoundly grateful for it.

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