Ending the Silence After Loss-- How to talk to someone who is grieving
Knowing how to talk to a grieving loved one about the person they have lost isn't easy. You may fear that bringing it up could make things worse, or maybe you just don't know where to begin. It's normal to feel unsure, but the truth is that very often grieving people are desperate to talk about their loss. As a grief counselor, it's something I hear very often from my clients:
"My husband died, and it feels like everyone is afraid to say his name around me now."
"After my sister killed herself, it was almost like she hadn't existed. My friends would check on me-- was I doing alright, did I need anything-- but they never spoke about her. They never asked how I felt about her suicide. If they were thinking of her, too, they never said so."
"My mom died a year ago, and I feel like everyone else has moved on. I think about her every single day, but nobody else seems to remember at all. I mean, they never really talk about her."
It's okay to bring it up.
The main question people tend to ask when they do bring it up is "Do you want to talk about it?" While this is a good start, it can actually be a really hard question to answer-- it comes with a sense of expectation. People feel that if they say "yes" they also need to know what to say next, and starting is hard.
So here are some alternative ways to open the door to talking about loss with your grieving loved one.
First and foremost, it is okay to use the name of the deceased person. In therapy sessions, I very often have clients tell me that they simply crave the sound of the person's name.
Second, to open a conversation, it's best to be honest. "Sometimes I'm not sure how much to say. Is it too painful for you when I ask about Frank?" This sort of question allows you to gauge whether or not to continue-- it takes the uncomfortable guess work out. You might hear "Yes, it is. I just can't talk about that right now." You might hear "It does hurt, but it's nice, too." Or maybe "No, not at all. I love talking about him." No matter what response you get, you no longer have to sit wondering-- you have addressed the elephant in the room. And even someone who says that they don't want to talk knows now that you are a safe person in the future.
Thirdly, after gauging permission, it's helpful to steer clear of too many yes-or-no questions. Imagine the difference between asking, "Do you miss Frank?" and "What things do you miss most about Frank?" Or the difference between "Are you sad about the holidays?" and "What are you feeling as the holidays are getting closer?" When you ask an open-ended question, you are truly inviting the other person to share more.
Finally, and this can be the hardest, allow that person to be sad. Or happy. Or flat. Or confused. Or angry. Remember that you cannot fix this. I'll say it again. You cannot fix this. When you want to be supportive, sometimes your task is just to be present. Your task is to listen, without judgement. Your task is to love.
These can be hard conversations to have, but they can also be precious, intimate, and poignant. This may be the gift your loved one needs right now. Keep in mind that these are just tips. You do not have to be perfect. Being yourself and being authentic is more important than following a script, however I do hope these tips are helpful in giving you the courage to open the door.
Miranda Featherstone, MS, LPC, CRC is a mental health counselor based in Salem, Oregon. She writes about navigating changes, the experience of grief, and the embracing the benefits of creativity and engagement with nature. Those located in Oregon who are interested in counseling are encouraged to reach out through her website.