Talk about Grief (It Will Be Messy)

I’ve posted recently about some of the dysfunctional ways we respond to grief and loss, such as asking “How are you?” with the expectation of a brief and positive answer and measuring and scoring grief. Ira Glass notes in the first segment of the recent This American Life show devoted to grief that because of COVID, a very high number of Americans are now grieving. We would all benefit from learning how to talk about grief better.

I think Americans have a very low ability collectively to sit with uncomfortable feelings such as grief. We try to glibly glide right past them or encourage people to “get over it” quickly. We tell ourselves it’s rude or awkward to bring up grief in conversation, so we don’t, but the truth is that by pretending grief isn’t happening, we make it that much harder to talk about grief and we imply that people who are grieving are a problem and they need to hurry up and “get over it” so the rest of us won’t feel so uncomfortable.

In the past I have told myself that I am doing a grieving person a favor by glossing over their grief. I have told myself that they are surely not interested in sharing their grief with their colleague or casual acquaintance or boss or whatever I am to them. Perhaps they weren’t, but what I realize now is that it is not up to me to decide what they are interested in. If somebody’s grief makes me uncomfortable, that’s my problem. My job as someone who cares about a grieving person is to be willing to be uncomfortable in order to offer them comfort.

On that note, today I want to focus on some of the responses I have deeply appreciated:

  1. Rambling, inarticulate voice messages from folks that were incredibly touching because they were rambling and inarticulate. The very act of reaching out when you don’t know what to say shows that you recognize the gravity of the situation and you’re willing to risk being awkward to acknowledge someone else’s pain. It is a selfless act in which someone lets go of the ruse that they have answers. Through its own awkwardness, it sets an expectation for an awkward response.
  2. Cards, notes, and emails in which people shared a specific memory of my husband or an aspect of him they would particularly miss. To me, this is so much more meaningful than offering advice or an inspirational quote because it is personalized and indicates an understanding that my grief over my loss of my husband is different from any other grief. Even just one sentence that is personalized—one friend who didn’t know my husband well simply wrote “I remember him as a genial presence at your dinner parties”—comforts me by testifying to the mark my husband left on the world.
  3. Explicit recognition that it just sucks that my husband is gone. The acknowledgment of my loss and the high suck-factor without any attempt to identify a bright side recognizes that negative emotions are completely normal and conveys that I will not be judged for being awkward or teary or morose.

All of these responses demonstrate that another human is trying to connect with me, trying to comfort me, and recognizing that there really is no comfort possible right now, that things are just going to suck for a while and then after a while, they will suck a little bit less. To my mind, there is no one “right” thing to say—any response to grief that acknowledges that grief is normal and that the pain is real is a “right” response. These responses I’ve highlighted resist the social expectation to keep conversation light, positive, and “fun.” (I’ll post at some point in the future about why the concept of “fun” often makes me cringe.)

And while I think there are some wrong things to say (examples I’ve heard are “you’re still sad?” and “how long do you think you’ll be like this?”, which imply that because my grief is a downer for someone else, I need to get over it), even those can be mitigated with a heartfelt, “Oh, that wasn’t what I meant, let me try again. This is really hard to talk about for me.” In fact, asking for a do-over is a strategy I appreciate because it acknowledges the dysfunction embedded in our default ways of dealing with negative emotions and it immediately aims to repair the harm done by the original statement.

So please, be awkward. Say the wrong thing and then catch yourself. Allow yourself to not know what to say and talk anyway. Acknowledge grief in whatever uncomfortable, messy, honest way you can.

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