Why is it so hard to talk about grief?

I lead a grief group every Saturday in San Francisco. And one of the most common complaints from grievers is that people won’t let them to talk about their grief. After a death, the world will give you just a few weeks to grieve. You can cry, scream, be depressed, drink, act however you want. You can talk nonstop about the person you’ve just lost, or just sit in the corner and cry. But after just a few weeks their patience ends. Then they want you to turn off your grief and move on.

Grief makes people uncomfortable

I’ve come to understand that grief makes people uncomfortable. The griever’s pain and tears are overwhelming, and people just don’t know what to say or do. As a result of all that discomfort, people say stupid, thoughtless, and downright mean things to grievers all the time. And as soon as they can, they avoid the griever, with the excuse that they’re “giving them privacy to mourn”.

Under the guise of helping you, they’ll say things like:

“It’s best not to dwell on it.”

“She would have wanted you to go on with your life.”

“Life goes on.”

“He’s in a better place.”

“You should be grateful you had her for so long.”

But what they’re really saying is “shut up”. Because your grief makes them so uncomfortable. If you keep talking about your feelings, they start to turn up the volume and start to say things like:

“Don’t you think you’re being a little self-indulgent?”

“Isn’t it really time to get on with your life?”

“She’d be very unhappy with the way you’re acting.”

Even that friendly arm around the shoulder and the kind sounding “There, there, things will be OK” is meant to keep you quiet. While it looks kind, the real motive is to stop you from crying. Because your tears make people uncomfortable. And most of all, your loss reminds people of their own losses in the past and the reality of losses that will come in the future. If your friend just lost his spouse, that makes you think of the fact that someday you will lose your own spouse or they will lose you. And that thought is so painful that it makes people avoid you and your grief.

What does a griever need?

Grievers don’t need your sympathy, they don’t need your words of condolence, or words of wisdom. More than anything else, grievers want to be heard. Grievers want to be around people who will:

  • Listen to their story (no matter how many times they have to tell it)

  • Listen and not try to fix what is unfixable

  • Let them talk about the one they’ve lost

The best thing you can do is remember that what grievers want most is for you to acknowledge their loss and be willing to listen.

Grief doesn’t demand pity – it requests acknowledgement.|
Jude Gibbs

The following article recently appeared in the New York Times. It does a great job of helping you with some ideas of how to talk to someone who is grieving. But the important thing is not exactly what you say – but how you say it. The greatest gift you can give is to be a listener, a witness to their grief, an ally for their pain. Your job is to give them the space to tell their story over and over again. Because its through telling their grief story that healing takes place.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog post. I’m an psychotherapist specializing in Grief Counseling and counseling for seniors. My therapy practice is in Marin County California, at 21 Tamal Vista Blvd, #194 Corte Madera, CA 94925.