Auntie SparkNotes: I Should Be Sad, but I'm Not. What Do I Do?
To Auntie Sparknotes,
Recently our family dog has been put down. We'd had her for years, and she's been a lovely dog, so as expected it was a very sad time for everybody.
I just couldn't feel that sad about the dog. I tried to act like I was as upset as everybody else was, but it just felt wrong. I feel horrible for not missing the dog, since I know I'm supposed to. It's like I'm doing something wrong, but I can't exactly force myself to feel an emotion, can I? I did care about our pet dog, but… I suppose I just didn't care that much.
I've been diagnosed as 'being on the autistic spectrum' (although not as seriously as some), and it's rare for me to be truly sad about somebody else. But even though I regret that, I still don't feel sad. I have good friends and close family, who I all care about, but at the same time I don't.
I'm not sure what to do when I'm in a situation where I should be feeling negative, since that's the 'human' reaction, but I'm not. What should I do in these situations? I don't feel comfortable lying about how I feel, but I don't want to make things worse for everybody else by being too cheery.
Believe it or not, Sparkler, the fact that you don't want to make things worse means you're already off to a very good start. Actually, a wonderful start. Because where you might not necessarily feel grief in the same way as most people do, you absolutely comprehend both its existence and the need to respect it—and that conscientious concern for other people's feelings means you'll never have to worry about doing something really gauche, i.e. bursting in on your dog's funeral service in a clown outfit and initiating a dance party on top of her grave. (Or at least, not unless dancing/clowning are already part of the planned funerary festivities.)
And with that out of the way, all that's really left for you is to master the finer points of being sensitive in the face of other people's sadness—which does not mean that you should ever try to pretend or force your feelings. In all but the rarest cases, sad people are way too occupied with their own grief to worry about micromanaging yours. And when it comes to sad situations, you don't need to worry about whether your emotional state matches that of everyone else; you just have to avoid being conspicuous or obnoxious about how unhappy you aren't feeling.
Mostly, this is about making the bereaved or aggrieved as comfortable as possible while they're miserable, by being considerate, keeping a low profile, and letting them cope on their own schedule... which it sounds like you're doing already, so kudos. And when it comes to your own behavior, even if you're not feeling sad yourself, there are basic cultural blueprints that you can follow in situations like these. For instance:
When something bad has happened and someone tells you they're sorry, or sorry for your loss…
Say: "Thank you."
Don't say: "Eh, whatever. He had B.O."
When something sad has happened, and you're asked how you're doing...
Say: "It's been hard, but I'm doing okay, thank you."
Or, if it's a group/family trauma: "It's been hard for all of us."
(In other words: Tactfully acknowledge the sadness of the situation, without volunteering the part where you, personally, are not that sad.)
Don't say: "I feel great, and I want a hot dog!"
When someone wants to talk to you in greater depth about the sad thing that happened...
If it's a tragedy that you were closely involved with: "It's a terrible situation, but I'm trying not to dwell on it. Why don't you tell me what's new with you?"
If it's a tragedy that didn't involve you, but the other person is very sad: "I'm so sorry. Is there anything I can do?"
If the conversation has continued to the point where you're at a complete loss for words: "I just don't know what to say."
Don't say: "SORRY NOT SORRY, BROHAM."
And finally, on the off chance that somebody comments on your apparent lack of emotion…
Say: "Please don't make assumptions about how I'm feeling. I'm coping as best I can, in my own way, the same as everyone else." (Again: A tactfully-presented version of the truth works wonders.)
Don't say: "I am delighted to inform you that I have the emotional range of a teaspoon."
And realize, too, that you're not alone in feeling unsure or uneasy about this stuff. All these trite and tired things we learn to say in times of crisis—we keep those phrases at the ready because nobody feels comfortable or sure of themselves in the presence of extreme sadness. We all react to it in our own way, and we all worry that our own way leaves something to be desired. And when you find yourself unsettled by other people's sadness, you could do a lot worst than to let convention be your guide.
Which is why, in conclusion, I'm very sorry about your dog.
Got something to say? Tell us in the comments! And to get advice from Auntie, email her at email@example.com.
Want more info about how this column works? Check out the Auntie SparkNotes FAQ.