Are You Grieving? Want to Talk About It?
Sometimes talking can help. But how do you start?
Posted December 28, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Much has been written about grief and how to manage it, but less has been written about the role of shared feelings when it comes to grieving.
- Knowing how to talk about grief can be one of the most complex, confusing, and important aspects of the grieving process.
- Grief can be isolating. Connecting in some way with another person who does understand, in their own way, can help.
Bernice* was 29 years old when her beloved grandmother died. “I miss her so much,” she told me. “But you’re the only person I can talk to about it.”
Antonne* was embarrassed about how emotional he was over the loss of his 13-year-old dog. “Nobody gets it,” he said. “My dad thinks I’m overreacting. It hurts so much. But maybe he’s right?”
Years ago, I went to pay my condolences to a friend whose dad had died. I was young, and, like most of us, didn’t know what to say. I said, “I’m so sorry. I can imagine how much it hurts,” which was true. I had been imagining what I would feel like if my own dad died. But she replied angrily, “No, you can’t imagine it. You haven’t ever lost anyone, and so you can’t imagine what it’s like.”
Much has been written about grief and how to manage it, but less has been written about the role of shared feelings when it comes to grieving.
Recently, while going through some significant losses in my own life, I realized that knowing how to talk about our grief can be one of the most complex, confusing, and important aspects of the grieving process.
There are books and posts about what to say and not to say to someone who is grieving; and there are books and posts about how to deal with grief. But many clients have said something along the lines of what Bernice told me—that they are only able to talk about their grief openly in therapy.
Why is this? There are, of course, several reasons. Grief can be very private and the pain too difficult to talk about or share with anyone. Or, as the philosopher and psychoanalyst Robert Stolorow, who has written about the painful losses of both a wife and a daughter, wrote, sometimes others push away our grieving because they’re afraid of the feelings.
Sometimes we try to protect loved ones by hiding our suffering. This protection of others is sometimes also a protection of ourselves, since if someone we care about gets distressed by our pain, we often fear that we will feel it even more intensely. Many of us also worry that our friends and loved ones will get tired of listening to us talk about our pain. As Antonne told me, “People think I should get over this feeling of loss. They’re bored with me. I know they’re thinking, ‘It’s just a dog.’”
Like Antonne, many of us find it hard when someone doesn’t understand the experience first-hand. This, I think, is what my friend was trying to say to me when I tried to offer some empathy. Recently, after hearing of the death of my youngest brother, a man I know who also lost a sibling reached out to express his sympathy and said that it can be hard for people who haven’t lost a sibling to understand how painful it can be. I realized that I was certainly guilty of exactly that in the past—I had never realized before just how painful that loss can be.
We all “know” how important sharing emotions can be to our mental and physical well-being. CancerLifeline, which provides groups for individuals going through cancer treatment, puts it this way on its website: "Nothing good will come from hunkering down with 'me, myself and I' for days on end. We run the risk of getting caught in that crazy cycle of unwanted thoughts that can raise our stress, anxiety, and fear. Having the opportunity to talk about all that is running through our heads diminishes the power those unwanted thoughts have over us!"
Each of us grieves differently.
We go through different stages at different times, and we have different ways of feeling and talking about our feelings. It’s normal to want to share your feelings with others who do know what it’s like, who have or are going through something similar. And this is because quite simply, we humans feel more comfortable sharing when we feel that someone who can understand what we are experiencing, which often comes from having gone through something similar. This doesn’t mean that you can only share your feelings with someone who has suffered the same loss. Many people are empathic about others’ feelings, even if they haven’t gone through the same things.
Even if you’ve been through something similar, don't assume you know what another person is feeling.
Your experience might have been quite different. But it’s also important not to assume that if you haven’t been through a similar experience, you have nothing to offer someone who is hurting.
The most important thing to remember is that grieving can leave us feeling isolated and alone; and that connecting in some way with another person who does understand, in their own way, can help.
Thinking about this need for a connection with others, I shared with Antonne something my vet, a gruff man who I like a lot even though he’s neither kindly nor particularly sympathetic, told me when I was crying over the loss of my cat: He had saved the ashes of his own pets and had requested that they all be buried with him.
Passing on advice can also be a helpful way to connect.
Years ago, I had to cancel an appointment with my supervisor to go to visit my mother who was dying. My supervisor told me, “I’m sorry you’re going through that. And I’ll pass on something I was told by an older colleague when my father was dying. He said I should spend as much time with my dad in those last months as I could. I had young children, I was working, and we didn’t live in the same state, but I’m very glad I made the effort to see him as much as I did. It seems to have made the grieving a little easier.”
Small connections help us feel less isolated in our grief.
But they can only happen if we tell others about our grief. You don’t have to spend hours sobbing in a friends’ arms. What’s crucial is the sense of connection, the feeling of not being alone, and the awareness that someone else recognizes, understands and has, at some time or another, also grieved.
*Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy.
Robert D. Stolorow: Faces of Finitude: Death, Loss, and Trauma https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07351690.2021.1953834