The Elephant in the Room: How to Talk to Those Experiencing Grief
When bad things happen to good people, we’re often at a loss of how to respond and what to say. The loss becomes the elephant in the room – too unwieldy to discuss yet too big to ignore.
Here are some thoughts on how to talk to people who are dealing with loss or tragedy:
Bringing It Up
Sometimes we hesitate to bring the subject, as though the person has forgotten that their husband has left or their family member has died. You don’t have to worry about saying something that will make them think about something that they’re not already thinking about.
When everybody refuses to acknowledge the loss, it can lead the heartbroken to believe that they are alone in their pain. The mention of it lets them know that they’re not alone in their memories and their suffering.
All that being said, be cognizant about when you bring it up. At work, the person may be doing all they can to hold their grief behind a dam of conviction. And a reminder at that point may breach that wall. Also, be mindful of their response to your words. If they change the subject or shut it down, respect their wishes. If they want to talk, listen.
If you’re the one suffering in silence, let people know if and when it is okay to bring it up. And if your friends and family cannot talk about it, perhaps it’s time to find a support group of people who can.
Speaking About Your Experiences
It’s natural for you to want to share your similar experiences. And there is quite a lot to be said about the power of “me too.” Yet be careful here not to minimize the experience of someone else by implying (or stating outright) that your situation was worse. Also refrain from claiming that you know exactly how they feel. Even if the circumstances are identical, the responses won’t be. Your experiences may allow you to empathize, but that’s a long way from actually being in their shoes.
If you stick your foot in your mouth by complaining about how bad traffic was on the way to their loved one’s funeral, apologize. And then forgive yourself. When we’re emotional, we often respond with nervous energy and a lack of appropriate filters.
If you’re on the other side and somebody says something ignorant to you, try to let it go. They are either trying to connect and they failed miserably or they haven’t experienced anything in the same universe as what you’re going through and they’re clueless.
“It’s for the best.”
“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”
“It was meant to be.”
Just don’t. I am a huge believer in silver linings, yet there is also a hell of a lot of polishing that has to happen before you can see those. And for those in the midst of grief, there’s nothing shiny about what they’re seeing.
Often what people need more than an assurance that it will be okay is reassurance that it’s okay for them to not be okay right now.
Instead of platitude, offer condolences. Offer thoughts. Offer prayers. And offer to just listen, without judgement.
If you receive some of these platitudes, try to remember that they’re coming from a place of love. Those who care about you don’t want to see you hurt and they’re trying to reassure you (and them) that you’ll make it through.
Expecting Them To Be “Over It”
Grief does not speak calendar. They’re not going to be suddenly healed after a month. Or three. Or even a dozen. The pain of loss ebbs and flows, but it is always there like the pools left behind from an outgoing tide.
It’s unfair to expect them to be “back to normal” after a period of time. In fact, their normal may in fact be different now. Be compassionate about where they are in their pain. Accept that they have been changed by their experience and that this is not about making you feel comfortable.
If you’re experiencing people telling you that you should be “over it,” begin by asking yourself if there is any credibility to their claim. It’s easy to become stuck in grief and sometimes this is how others let us know that we need help to keep moving. If this is not the case, read this and try to refrain from punching the person.
Accepting Your Own Triggers
Loss has a strange way of bringing up all past losses. When you look at the faces at a funeral, some are crying for the life being honored on that day, some are crying at the remembrance of past losses and many are weeping for both.
Be mindful of your own triggers when helping someone else through their grief. These can be reminders about your past experiences or even triggered fears about what could happen to you in the future. This is one (of so many) reasons that losing a child is so hard – the other parents cannot bear to fathom that loss themselves and so they often create distance from the impacted family.
Be honest about what you’re feeling. If needed, get support for yourself so that you can be present for your loved one.
If you’re the one facing loss, understand that not everybody will be able to be present for you because of their own struggles. It doesn’t mean they care about you any less, it just means they are also wrestling with their own emotions.
Overall, the most important thing you can do for somebody else is to simply be there. Letting them know that they are not alone.