Dear Carolyn: I have a question that I’ve found extremely difficult to pose in my real life. How do you react to somebody who you think actually is milking grief?
I lost my mother about 18 months ago and my sister is still acting like we just got the news yesterday. She mentions our “recent loss” to everybody from waitresses to her hairdresser to the checker at the grocery store. On more than one occasion, we got a reduced rate or something for free, and this makes me feel very uncomfortable.
My sister also avoids any difficult conversations, and Mom’s house currently looks like a shrine to her because my sister is unable to clean it out and goes nuts if we offer to do it without her. My brother and I think part of this is genuine emotion but part of it is that she really likes being a grieving person. I don’t want to bruise her genuine emotions, but my patience is getting very thin.
Milking Grief: Can someone “like” being a grieving person? She can get something out of it, maybe, but even then I don’t know if that’s about pleasure. I suppose it’s possible in someone who thrives on attention in general, and you’d know whether that was true of your sister before your mother’s death.
It could also be, though, that she’s stuck. Grief is different in everyone, as most people know, and in running its own course it can also stop progressing and never reach a resolved or manageable place.
The Mom’s-house-as-shrine suggests your sister might be in that position, because it’s hard to see what attention feedback she gets from denying you and your brother permission to clean it out.
It sounds as if you live close to your sister, so maybe she will agree to come with you to a moderated grief support group. Do your homework first — a call to local hospice providers is where I’d start, because most offer comprehensive services for the dying and the bereaved — and get the process going. If she gets something out of a meeting or two that you bring her to, then maybe she’ll start to go on her own.
I realize your sister’s being stuck means you and your brother also are being asked to live in the past with her to some degree, and that’s frustrating. But please try to keep that frustration from coloring your view of your sister. No amount of grief-freebies can change the fact that death is foremost on her mind and has been for (at least) a year and a half.
Tell her you’re not comfortable with those freebies, yes, and even admit you’re uncomfortable with talking about Mom’s loss as if it happened yesterday, but take care to approach these, and your sister in general, with more compassion than cynicism. Regardless of her motivations or intent, her choices betray her as someone struggling with poor emotional health.