How To Make Grief Less Awkward: A Guide To Talking About Death With The Ones You Love
In November, I experienced the deaths of my grandfather and a close friend in the same week. I had just finished the final assessments for my Masters degree and had a number of commitments, including two jobs. I cancelled everything. I was having trouble getting through the day and sleeping. I certainly wasn’t ready to interact with humans apart from my wife, family and friends. Even those interactions were tenuous since one of the stages of grief is anger, and mine came quickly, red hot.
This grief was different to anything I had experienced before. If I thought about one of them, which was painful in itself, the other person sprung to mind immediately. Instead of being able to process the losses individually, their deaths became connected, making my grief all-consuming and inescapable. The fact that my grandfather was decades older, and didn’t have young, dependent children, didn’t make his death easier to accept. The fact that I had only known this friend for three years didn’t make hers less important to me.
This same friend had consoled me earlier in the week when she found out that my grandfather had died. I felt shocked by the suddenness of his death, and she had provided support and assistance, apologising that she couldn’t do more. Later that same week, after her death, I couldn’t stop looking at our last online conversation.
I felt guilt and regret. I hated not being able to grieve either my grandfather or friend properly. Unable to cope with the permanence of their deaths, I tried to live in denial whenever possible.
As 2015 drew to a close, my Facebook feed contained a significant number of memes and posts celebrating the end of a terrible year. Many I knew had experienced the deaths of beloved family members, friends or a partner during the year. Online, many of us exchanged sympathies and condolences, or simply clicked ‘like’ on a poignant post. Social media made it easy to express sorrow in 140 characters or less. I wondered how many of us were talking about it face to face.
When social pleasantries are not so pleasant
Social pleasantries have evolved to include asking strangers and colleagues relatively personal questions in a casual, chummy way. “How are you today?” we ask, expecting a cheery response. The truthful answer may be that the person is feeling terrible, or isn’t coping, but the onus is to lie and toe the expected line of “Good, thanks.”
In Australian workplaces, people seem to enjoy asking “How was your weekend?” on Mondays and “Got anything planned for the weekend?” from Tuesday to Friday.
The answer depends on a few things. If your weekend involves something distressing or painful, are you willing to talk about it? For those who prefer not to get too personal at work, you might say “Just a quiet one.” Some people prefer to reel off an impressive list of social events every time they are asked this question.
While I am mourning, I cannot lie. Or maybe I just don’t want to lie. The grief flares up suddenly, especially during casual conversation. If I’m not about to cry, I might speak up directly and honestly. “I’m not feeling very good, actually. My grandfather and a close friend just died.”
It isn’t just that their question makes me feel bad so I want them to feel bad. When I am grieving, I find it hard to have a conversation that doesn’t involve talking about death. I bring it up constantly even if it makes some people uncomfortable. My peak period of grieving coincided with the festive season. During the cheery conversations, if any topic even vaguely related to the lives of my late grandfather or friend, I immediately brought them up, often resulting in awkward silences.
There are also practical and emotional reasons to be brutally honest. People need to know why you keep cancelling work or social plans, or why certain things make you cry (in my case, string instruments and birds). Even when I talked about the deaths at appropriate moments, however, I noticed that not many people seemed to know how to respond.
You don’t have to experience grief to be able to talk about it
When I blurt out something about death, I can’t predict how people will react. I know how I would like them to react. Not many people react this way, and I find myself angry and disappointed. Then I feel like a hypocrite, as I have my own history of not responding properly.
I did not know how to communicate about grief for the first two decades of my life. I still remember my reaction when I heard that a friend’s grandmother had died. I was a high school student at the time, still lucky enough to have all four grandparents alive. I couldn’t fathom losing my own grandparents so my friend’s loss was unimaginable. Also, I was a shy, socially anxious teenager. The one thing I was sure of back then was my lack of grace and fluency when it came to difficult topics.
I remember thinking that you had to have experience with loss and grief to be able to talk about it. I didn’t know the rules about what to say or send to a mourner. I didn’t know you could talk about trivial topics with a grieving person, and that it didn’t all have to be grim faces and apologetic hand gestures. My teenage mind assumed that when you were grieving, you grieved 24/7.
So I stayed away. I missed the funeral and Shiva, which is the Jewish week of mourning where you stay home, avoid celebratory events, cover mirrors and burn a candle. Shiva is designed to keep you focussed on your loss rather than distracted by the outside world. It is considered a mitzvah, a commandment that is an act of kindness, to visit mourners.
I didn’t turn up with food. I didn’t even send a card or call her. Death terrified me. It threatened my security and comfort since my grandparents were so central to my life.
I ran into the friend a few months later. She greeted me warmly.
“How have you been?” I asked.
“Okay. I don’t know if you heard but my grandmother died.”
“Oh no, I’m so sorry to hear that. I had no idea.” I cringed as I did something I hadn’t known I was capable of doing: lying and claiming ignorance. I forced out compassionate sounding words, which I found easier to think of since time had passed since her loss and I figured this meant she was okay now.
I didn’t know how to talk about grief and loss, so I pretended it didn’t exist. I wasn’t willing to experience the awkwardness or embarrassment of fumbling my way through the words, to risk getting it wrong.
Since then, the deaths of my four beloved grandparents provided some of the training that I didn’t want but sorely needed in How To Talk About Death.
When my first grandparent died, my maternal grandmother, I was too scared to call my boss to cancel work. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to say the words without crying. Even though I was 20, my father offered to make the call for me. “Hi, this is Rosalind’s father,” I heard him say as I hovered in the background, filled with appreciation and embarrassment.
I had a four-year reprieve until my next encounter with death. My paternal grandmother died when I was 24. This time I was at work when I found out the news. I crouched on the floor of an empty room, sobbing on the phone to my father. I walked back into the office just as my boss came to find me. “I’m sorry I took so long,” I said, crying openly, even though the thought of showing emotion at work would have horrified me previously. “I just found out that my grandmother died.” My boss offered consolation but I remember thinking, She doesn’t realise that my entire world has just changed.
The next death occurred just before my 26th birthday. My grandfather deteriorated over New Year’s Eve and died on the 2nd January. Due to the holiday period, I had some time off work. Several days after my grandfather died, my boss called to check on me and to ask when I might be ready to return to work. The thought of work turned my stomach. His death signified the end of an era: my unique and quirky paternal grandparents. I didn’t know how I would ever return to normal life. I said something polite and hung up the phone.
The end of their lives happened in different ways, some sudden and others with a prolonged period of deterioration. This involved difficult conversations with people who are trained to communicate precisely and empathetically about illness and death, from doctors and nurses specialising in palliative care, oncology or dementia, to Rabbis and funeral home directors.
It became normal to discuss morphine doses and resuscitation orders for someone I loved, the way I used to discuss what to buy for their birthday or where we should meet them for lunch. It became commonplace to express anger, fear or doubt about a medical procedure, despite wondering ‘What the hell do I know?’ And after all of that, it became easier to talk about the unknown: death.
However, personal experience with grief and loss does not necessarily make someone capable of speaking to others about theirs. The latter involves deliberately stepping into the unknown, the raw and painful, and attempting to say the right thing, when there is no right thing.
A Way Forward
Here are my ten tips for talking about death, in the hope that the next time someone in your life is experiencing grief, you have a better idea of what to say or do. These are specifically for people you are close to. However, some of them apply to strangers, including customers if you’re in a people-profession. If someone confides in you, for whatever reason, you should definitely acknowledge the pain and loss. It’s not easy to tell a stranger, so be a nice and empathetic stranger.
- Acknowledge something bad has happened
Not acknowledging grief and loss causes pain. It is better to acknowledge and get it wrong, even if this means fumbling and stammering your way through it, than to avoid any mention of the topic, or to avoid the person altogether. Of course, some people may not want to talk about their loss, just as strongly as I wish to talk about it. They might prefer to receive flowers, a card or a text message — acknowledgement without conversation. Whichever form you choose, something is better than nothing.
2. Stay with the awkwardness
Grieving people often need to talk. However, as a friend of mine said when I mentioned some of these problems, “It’s amazing, isn’t it, how people disappear when you really need them?” Don’t assume that someone who is grieving has people to talk to. Loneliness can run rampant during grief. Make yourself available. If a grieving person brings up their loss or wants to talk about the person who died, listen to and appreciate the stories they are sharing even if you didn’t know the person who died or know how to respond.
Even the most basic, trite response is better than ignoring what they said or only making a sympathetic face. When you feel the urge to run from the conversation, focus your attention onto the person and their feelings rather than on your own comfort levels. If it gets to a point where you need to say something, just let them know that you are there to listen, hold them, drink with them or cry with them.
3. Don’t “grief-splain”
People who are grieving hear all sorts of unhelpful sentiments from people who possibly mean well but get it wrong. Don’t try to justify the death. When my mother mentioned to someone that her father had just died, they asked how old he was. After hearing he had been 89, one replied, “Well, he was old, it was bound to happen soon.” Grief isn’t lessened by the inevitability of death due to illness or old age. It still hurts. It still involves a loss of possibilities, conversations and memories.
Same goes for “At least he/she didn’t suffer.” Chances are that the person has thought about the few positives in the scenario. Instead of trying to cheer them up, let them sit with the bad feelings as long as they need to. After my friend died, her bereaved partner told me that she always seemed to know what to say to bereaved people. She would come up to them and say “It’s fucked”, and these somehow were the magic words. Deathis fucked, whether the person had been young or old, healthy or terminally ill.
Another grief-splain to avoid is telling someone not to blame themselves. Just discuss and listen to their regrets, as regrets are a normal part of the grieving process.
4. Offer something practical
Cook, clean, look after children, feed the pets, mow the lawn or suggest anything else that might help out someone who is grieving. Religious communities seem to get this right, unless you aren’t a member of one. My grandfather didn’t belong to one, and neither does my immediate family, and this meant that nobody came around to check on his daughter or son after the funeral. Another helpful offer might be to do something nice together. Suggest a brunch date, a walk in nature or a swim. There’s nothing like a dunk in the ocean to feel cleansed and invigorated, despite inner turmoil and sadness.
5. Make a space feel safe and comfortable
It is hard to return to work or study after experiencing a great loss, when life is meant to return to normal. Tell your friend or colleague that you are there if they want to talk. If you make an offer to do this, follow it up. It may help to remember that a huge part of loss is about love, and how much someone loved someone else. Let them talk about that love; it’s not just about talking about the pain that gets a person through it, but acknowledging the love, too.
6. Losing an animal is painful too
If someone is grieving for a pet, don’t ever say “It’s just a cat/dog/rat.” Acknowledge the loss of animals, even if they are small and don’t strike you as important. After my dog was put down, my colleagues and friends wrote really sweet messages on a card, which made me feel supported and cared for. Animals can be family members. For some people, a pet might have been their only companion.
7. Adults aren’t necessarily experts on grief
Don’t assume that being an adult means you know what you’re talking about when it comes to grief and loss. Being sensitive and caring is not related to one’s age or life experience. Sometimes, young people know how to care innately, and don’t have the weird hangups that adults have. Follow their lead if they seem to be providing comfort. Simple and sincere words of sorrow or a hug can go a long way. Animals are good at this, too, often sensing distress and knowing when to sit on your lap or lick you.
8. It’s not all bad
Grief can be painful and horrific but also beautiful. There’s a reason loss and grief are often at the core of art, literature and music. They drag people through the extreme axes of emotion, heightening recklessness. People who are grieving are often more vulnerable, honest and blunt. This is a good time to get to know them, but it requires being open to criticism and a willingness to listen. Grief can lead to deeper friendships and relationships. It can also lead to a reliance on substances or sex to get through. Sometimes, grief is prolonged and can become a disorder or involve suicidal ideation, which is where you need to be on the lookout.
9. Watch out for assumptions
Don’t make assumptions about what people should be doing when they are bereaved. Some people want to go to work for the distraction. I didn’t want to work and had the privilege of being able to cancel, thanks to my supportive spouse and flexible casual jobs. Some people may not want to work but don’t have a choice. Whatever you see the person doing, try to be supportive.
10. Stages of grief communication
Grief is complex. It’s a process to work through, for both you and the person you care about. Just as grief involves stages, so does learning to communicate about it. It wasn’t experiencing death that helped me become more comfortable talking about grief and loss. My journey has involved therapy as well as talking about it constantly with my wife, family and friends. I still have a lot to learn, but I’m trying.
Your loved one lost someone who was part of their world. They have to adjust to an existence where the person they lost is not reachable. Focus on the love they felt. Learn about the person they lost, which will enrich your life, honour their memory, and help the bereaved feel even a little bit less alone.
And finally, a note to the bereaved
For those of you who are experiencing terrible grief, I wish I could tell you what would make you feel better, or how much longer you’re going to feel like this. I hope you find a way through this pain. Look after yourself, or find someone to help you. Even though it can be hard to find the words, especially when everything is bleak and grim, tell someone if you aren’t coping.
One thing that helped me through the pain of losing my friend was bombarding myself with her life. I befriended her friends, previously strangers, and we shared memories. I spent time with her partner and children, feeling the ache of her absence. I listened to the beauty and resonance of the string music that she loved. I read things she had written and laughed and cried. I went to her favourite beach and had the most joyful, exquisite swim in her honour.
It was harder to do this with my grandfather’s life. We had had a language barrier between us, and a generational barrier. He kept things to himself. But then I remembered the way that he used to go to the beach every day when he still lived at home. When he couldn’t walk as well, he used to drive there, park and watch the waves. I found it calming to remember this, and to imagine the peace it brought him. I also remembered the way he liked to feed the birds on his balcony at home. When he had to move to the nursing home, he ripped a hole in the window screen and fed his bread scraps to an appreciative audience of birds. After he died, I kept noticing these birds. They bring him back to me.
During the worst of my grief, the most helpful words I received were from a teacher I deeply respect. She said, “There can be no happy time here — except if you can allow the best of your grandpa to live on in you.” And that can be a perplexing challenge, but one that I think about often as I remember all the people I have lost.
Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by phoning Lifeline 13 11 14
Originally published at The Vocal by Roz Bellamy