Dear Maria,

A lifelong friend of mine is going through a very traumatic time. Her husband of 50 years died suddenly, and her daughter has been diagnosed with cancer. Now, she had a car accident and sustained pretty significant injuries. The problem? She is an absolute terror to her family and medical staff. She’s screaming at the nurses and her family. She’s mean to everyone who is trying to help. Honestly, she’s used to having things her way and has been pampered all her life. Now, no one knows what to do for her. They all try to help, and always leave angry, hurt, and confused. What can I do to help her be kinder to the people who love and care her?


On My Last Nerve

Dear On My Last Nerve,

How much can one person take? I’m so sad for your friend. Grief is a powerful emotion, and she’s dealing with losing two people at the top of the Most Painful Losses List, if one exists. There is no how-to process with grief; we all do it differently. But one aspect of grief that we all share: we never know when the feelings will hit us. A song may come on the radio, or a clerk will use an expression our loved one used to say, or we notice while fixing dinner that we’re cooking hard boiled eggs the way mom taught us. These little, daily life reminders hit hard, the tears come, and steal our breath. For someone like your friend, who’s used to being in control, grief is a messy, chaotic, feels-like-you’re-herding-cats emotion. There’s no schedule or clean way to do it. Which is why, for many people, grief goes unresolved for years, tucked deep inside and revisited when the next big loss comes along.

On top of this, she suffers a serious car accident–another loss of control and safety. Automobiles create a false sense of security, with the airtight windows and radios. We plummet down the highway at high speed under the illusion of control. Conditions change in the blink of an eye, and accidents happen at a sickening pace: slow enough to see it coming, and too fast to stop it. Then the pain, slow healing and physical therapy, possibly. Her future is unclear, and all she may know for certain is that more pain and grief are on the way.

I’d be a bit snippy if I were in her place, too. With the heavy emotional weight she’s carrying, it’s hard to find a way to gratitude. On the up side, she has loved ones trying to help, and quality healthcare to guide her recovery. She may be, even before this traumatic time, the kind of person who has difficulty accepting help. If she’s fiercely independent, assistance in what she once did for herself is frustrating. Every act of kindness is a humiliating reminder that she’s dependent on another.

So, what are you to do? Some consolation comes in knowing that the professional staff has no emotional investment in your friend. They deserve to be treated kindly, of course, but her meanness doesn’t get to them the way it does with family or friends. They’ve cared for all kinds of temperaments, and have been trained to deal with difficult personalities. As long as your friend is being treated at a healthcare facility, she should receive the attention she needs from people who are compassionate through a thick skin.

Let that shit goAs for her family and friends, this behavior may or may not be surprising. Each person will have to figure out how much they will tolerate. A wise person once advised me to put on a “duck suit” when going into an emotionally-charged situation. Water doesn’t get to a duck. For me, the goal was to let painful remarks roll off my back and not take things personally. Perhaps you can zip into your duck suit before you visit your friend?

As overwhelming as this time is for your friend, it is also an opportunity for personal growth and reflection. Hopefully, she will find inner reserves of strength she didn’t know she had. If she allows herself to cry, her tears will become less frequent, given time. You may be the one holding the tissue box. Perhaps this onslaught of pain will teach her empathy and compassion. Sometimes the keys of life have to be pried from our terrified grasp before we find joy in surrender, and new life on the other side of loss. (Joan Didion, who endured similar losses, wrote a powerful memoir of her experience called The Year of Magical Thinking. Her reflections may encourage your friend.)

I’m so sorry your friend is such a PITA. Let her story unfold. For your part, put on your duck suit, do what you can, and let that s**t go. Hold your friend in thoughts and prayers of healing and peace. When you think of her, imagine her happy, not quarrelsome, self. No amount of fretting will help, and you can’t stand sentry between her angry barbs and the people around her. They all have a part to play, too. Their interactions with your friend are part of their stories. Let them play out.