How to Have a Conversation About Grief

What can you say to someone who is grieving? Celeste Headley author of the book ‘We Need to Talk’ shares a conversation she had with a friend who had lost her father. She says,

“A good friend of mine lost her dad some years back. I found her sitting alone on a bench outside our workplace, not moving, just staring at the horizon. She was distraught and I didn’t know what to say to her. It is so easy to say the wrong thing to someone who is grieving and vulnerable. I told her that my dad had drowned in a submarine when I was 9 months old and I always mourned his loss, even though I’d never known him. I just wanted her to realise that she wasn’t alone, that I’d been through something similar and could understand how she felt.”

Often when we encounter the raw emotion of pain and sorrow we don’t know what to say. We may feel uneasy, uncertain how to proceed. We look for safer ground, found in our own personal experiences. We look for commonality, dredging up stories that show we understand. While we may be motivated by good intentions our words can be incredibly hurtful.

We overlook a simple truth, “It’s not about us.” Maybe we want it to be. Maybe we are feeling neglected, starved of attention. Maybe we are hurting and are desperate to find healing. Maybe we are pre-occupied and therefore hesitant about sharing in another’s sorrow. Or maybe we haven’t yet made our peace with pain and suffering. We still puzzle about its arbitrary nature, the unfairness and injustice of it all.

I’m not suggesting you avoid sharing things about yourself. It’s fine, as long as you bring the conversation back to the person who initiated the topic.

I recently had an opportunity to talk to someone about our son’s death to suicide. It’s a topic that rarely comes up in conversation. I was grateful for the chance to reflect on Adam’s experience, drawing attention to the positive aspects of his life and providing context for his death. At one point the person I was talking to shared what had helped them through a low period in their life. Their intention wasn’t to divert the conversation away from my loss but to expand the topic to include what support we might provide to someone feeling depressed or suicidal. I didn’t feel excluded and was able to speak freely, offering insights I had gained through my reading and personal experience.

Supporting someone who is grieving requires a measure of selflessness. It is about listening more than talking and asking questions that encourage the other person to share their pain.

It is important to bear in mind:

‘Grief is different for everybody. No two people experience loss in the exact same way.’

For this reason, it is unwise to compare grief. Such an exercise is unhelpful and is likely to cause confusion and even guilt. Grief is grief, but how you experience it is as unique as you and me.

As writer and widow, Laurie Burrows Grad says

“Comparing grief is a useless cause. This is not a competition. The grief we feel has its own voice and should not be compromised by comparisons.”

Grief is unique. It is complex and complicated and worthy of our respect. Even if you have had a parallel loss you won’t know how the other person feels. How can you? No-one knows the nature of their relationship with the deceased, the extent of their love.

Mental health professional Litsa Williams provides us with a valuable insight. She says,

“We are limited in our ability to truly understand another’s grief because most of us have yet to fully understand our own.”

This tendency to want to dictate the conversation and determine the focus, even at the expense of the grieving person, has a name.

Sociologist Charles Derber, author of the book ‘The Pursuit of Attention’ found that most people struggle with what he called ‘conversational narcissism.’ It’s the desire, often unconscious, to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking and to turn the focus of the exchange away from the person in need.

Let us return to Celeste Headlee and hear what she has to add. She says,

“I may have been trying to empathise, at least on a conscious level, but what I did was draw focus away from her anguish and redirect the attention to me. She wanted to talk to me about her father, to tell me about the kind of man he was, so I could appreciate the magnitude of her loss. Instead, I asked her to stop for a moment and listen to my story about my dad’s tragic death.”

People who are grieving will want to talk about their loss at some point. We need to be there for them when the occasion arises. We need to respect their wishes and to recognise the privilege it is to share in someone’s grief.

Asking questions is acceptable as long as we allow the person to defer if they so desire. Our role is to offer support not to find solutions. Grief isn’t something you can fix. No-one can take away the pain and sadness.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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