Despite grief, friend's behavior is too controlling
Q: I have a friend who lost a parent during her high school years. I wonder if I am being insensitive about the issue because I never knew the parent. I was not in the picture then.
Each year she wants to be surrounded by her friends on the anniversary of her mother's death, which is understandable. What gets me is that she sits there and waits for all her closest friends to acknowledge it in some way.
If anyone close to her forgets, she is angry and put out by it. In one case, one of our closest friends was on vacation and did not send any regards until late in the evening and via text message. She pushed that friend away, leaving me in the middle. The friend made numerous attempts to contact her after returning home, but she would not hear an apology. Am I being insensitive to think that she is overreacting? Am I wrong for suggesting she sets everyone up for failure?
Callous in CA
A: Just because someone's circumstances are worthy of your sympathy doesn't mean everything she does is worthy of your respect.
I don't want to say your friend is milking her pain — I'm sympathetic too, after all — but she is using it to justify controlling, punitive and self-absorbed behavior. And, every one of you who follows her orders by expressing to-the-letter condolences is an accessory to that behavior.
Just as you can grieve for her while not agreeing with her, you can also be compassionate while still calling her out for overreaching. For example:
"I understand that you need to grieve your mom in your own way. Likewise, we need to show sympathy for you in our way. Demanding that we say a certain thing by a certain time on a certain day says nothing about your loss, or about the way we feel. All it says is that we don't want to upset you. If you take the pressure off, I think you'll find yourself with good friends, instead of just obedient ones."
For the record, I wrote this because I think it's both a legitimate argument and a courageous act of friendship, not because I think it will work.
Your friend appears to have a significant amount of emotional work to do, particularly in recognizing and respecting boundaries; clearly she sees no problem with pushing her problems and feelings to the top of everyone else's agenda.
Unfortunately, those with the me-first affliction tend to perceive even the friendliest and most constructive criticism as an attack on their whole being, and they defend and punish accordingly.
Not that you should continue volunteering for hostage duty on the anniversary of her mother's death. I'm just saying that if you do resist, be sure to brace for a storm: Standing up to her is a compassionate, necessary and long-term investment, but it's likely to wreak short-term havoc on your friendship.
Accordingly, please learn this from the other girl, the one who had the nerve to be on vacation: No matter how your grieving friend reacts, don't apologize for anything you don't genuinely believe was wrong. Authenticity is the only response with the power to conquer a farce.