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In defence of complaining

Emma Grey

When both parents are in their mid-eighties, it’s a fairly safe bet that you will spend some of your time in hospital, as I did for several hours on Friday afternoon.

Everything is fine, and the highest risk is to my patience, which had reached critically low levels by the time we were given the all clear for me to bring the car around. Anyone who has experienced a parent with dementia will know that this is a long, heartbreaking, frustrating haul. I wouldn’t wish it on any other family.

Still, I would much rather be me (and my sister) dealing with the challenges of ageing parents than be my son, who at six and having lost his father 10 months ago will never have this privilege. At least, that’s what I tell myself, every time something feels difficult. That, and a thousand other versions of ‘perspective’ aimed to diminish something hard by comparing it to something worse.

The reality is that it’s okay to find things frustrating or confusing or boring, even if someone else would be glad to exchange their problem for yours. In the months since our family fell over the terrible abyss into grief, we’ve been surrounded by people whose problems were never ‘as bad as ours’. In most cases, people’s problems were not ‘bad enough’ to mention at all, because they were ‘nothing compared with what we’re going through’.

I’ve written about grief not being a problem competition before, but this is more than that. This is that thing where we downplay the things that are causing us genuine discomfort because we feel we ought to be less concerned, or more grateful.

I am absolutely of the ‘glass half full’ mentality. I feel genuinely thankful for the people I have in my life, and for the opportunities that are unfolding in my career. I have been through really, really bad things. I’ve suffered trauma. I have a different perspective now on what matters and what doesn’t.

But, having been through those things doesn’t soften the blow of the current challenges. Yes, I’m grateful that in my forties I still have parents. Yes, I’m desperately sad for my little boy and his older siblings that they won’t have their dad at this age. But all those things don’t erase this being hard too, in a different way.

Healthy doses of perspective can help us to get through a difficult situation, but shouldn’t be used to compound one by layering on added guilt. Each situation we face is unique and we come into it with a backstory that is our own. We meet each challenge where we are — which is better or worse than where we might have been if the bigger picture of our lives was different.

It’s important to go easy on ourselves, allow ourselves to feel what we feel and remember we’re all just doing the best we can, with what we have.


Emma Grey

Emma Grey is the Canberra-based author of ‘Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum’ and ‘Unrequited: Girl Meets Boy Band’. She’s director of the life-balance consultancy, WorkLifeBliss and co-founder of a fresh approach to time-management, My 15 Minutes. She lives just over the ACT border with her two teen daughters and young son. More about the Author

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