To Thine Own Self…

Dear Dr. Hurd,

A long-time acquaintance recently passed away after a dreadful bout with cancer. The point is that most of the people she knew didn’t like her. She had her good qualities, but, frankly, she used people, was obnoxious, and spread bad rumors about anyone who stood up to her.

Now, those of us who knew her are ‘walking on eggshells,’ desperately searching for something good to say. Honestly, I believe that none of us can get the Wizard of Oz song ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ out of our minds — and we’re too guilty to admit it! Is it OK to feel this way? She didn’t deserve the pain and suffering she endured, but should that change the way we remember her?

Dear Reader,

It’s amazing how death, a natural process, is somehow supposed to change our appraisal of a person’s life. We’ve all heard the saying, ‘when bad things happen to good people.’ But what about when bad things happen to people who hurt us? You can recognize and acknowledge the fact that a bad thing happened to her, something she didn’t deserve, but you don’t have to start pretending you liked her. It would be hypocritical and insulting to any redeeming qualities she might have otherwise possessed.

You’ve got to get past the assumption that it’s ‘wrong’ to feel this way. There are no morally wrong or ‘bad’ feelings. Sometimes feelings are illogical or inaccurate, but this doesn’t make them bad. It simply makes them faulty. Feelings, like our vision, can sometimes give us less than a 20/20 picture of the truth. When that happens, we put on our ‘mental glasses’ to see things more accurately. In your situation, what you see isn’t pretty. She just wasn’t very likable, and you’re trying to pretend that suddenly all that has changed. You don’t have to say anything negative to anybody who actually cared for her, but at the same time you don’t have to make up nice things to say. Just be sorry for their loss, comment that it’s terrible she died of a terminal illness, and leave it at that.

You say that there are people who feel the same way about her and face the same dilemma as yourself. They’re sad she suffered, but they don’t like her any better than they did before. Don’t be afraid to open up about this. This is part of the grief process, and it’s OK! I once heard an adult son at a funeral speak of his father who was a really difficult person. In his brief eulogy, he talked about the difficulty of being his father’s son but how he still loved him. I thought this was remarkably honest, and everybody admired the son for his frankness. Likewise, an old friend of mine commented on the terminal illness of a mutual acquaintance who had done some terrible things to others. He felt badly for his friend’s suffering, but he stuck to the truth: ‘Just because he’s sick doesn’t mean I have to like him!’

It all boils down to this: Is it more important to insulate ourselves (and others) from the truth, or is it more important to not be a hypocrite? I vote for not being a hypocrite. Make-believe doesn’t change the truth. It doesn’t relieve anyone’s suffering, and it doesn’t make a nasty person nice. You don’t do anyone any favors by lying, and you hurt your own self-respect in the process. As a survivor, you have to go on with a sense of reality that you diminish by pretending things are other than what they are. You don’t have to go out of your way to be hurtful to those who are grieving; simply acknowledge THEIR loss without pretending that you suffered a great one.

In cases like this, I’ll sometimes ask, ‘Were you in touch with the person who died?’ If the answer is, ‘No, not for years.’ Doesn’t that tell you something? There’s a reason you didn’t spend a lot of time with this person, and that’s fine. And it’s equally OK not to pretend that you wanted to. There are humane but still honest things to say, like, ‘I found her really difficult. Frankly, that’s why I stopped staying in touch with her. I hoped that she would change but she didn’t. It’s too bad she got cancer; she certainly didn’t deserve that.’ Who’s going to argue with this? Chances are, anyone you say this to will have reached the same conclusion and will appreciate your integrity.

Shakespeare had it right: ‘This above all: To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.’ If more people lived by this wisdom — and had the self-esteem to treat others well — there would be fewer people NOT to miss when they passed from this life.