Mourning traditions around the world, from Hindu traditions to Jewish and Christian traditions, provide structured time for mourners to lament their losses in the presence of supportive friends and family. In all cultures, too, there is a statute of limitations on the expression of grief. Weeks or months after a loss, grievers are expected to have rejoined ordinary life. Listeners are less willing to hear about a griever's pain. One of the most difficult things for those grievers who remain in raw pain is how to talk about their loss to others. My research has looked at how grievers disclose their losses and what kinds of stories are likely to get supportive responses from listeners.
My interest in this topic came in part from personal experience. My mother died when I was an infant. Years later, my loss is an old one and it is not painful to tell people the facts. Yet when I tell people about the loss, they respond with surprise and awkwardness. Clearly, hearing about a loss is difficult for a listener. Researchers who have interviewed bereaved people suggest that social awkwardness on the part of respondents is typical. Bereaved parents often find that their social network abandons them altogether after the loss. It struck me that grief can be a double loss for people - the loss of a loved one and the deterioration of one's network of friends in the wake of the death.
Talking about devastating personal events has short-term benefits but longer-term costs. My own research has found that grief stories that portray the loss as a devastating event evoke sympathy and concern but also make listeners feel more awkward and less accepting of the griever. Listeners are more comfortable with hearing about negative emotion if it is safely in the past, if the person has since recovered or managed to move out of the negative emotion into something better. Psychologist Dan McAdams has a term for stories whose narrative trajectory moves from bad to good: "redemption stories". We are distinctly less comfortable with hearing about negative events and painful emotions if these supplanted a situation that used to be positive (McAdams calls these "contamination stories"). Grief stories can go in either direction. There are stories that tell of emotional recovery from a devastating loss (see the first story below) and stories that tell of a good life being utterly derailed by such a loss (see second story below).
"My husband was killed in action in Iraq. I was 28 at the time with a young daughter. She is almost 3 years old now and thus far doing well emotionally. Her well-being is my most important goal. I lost my white picket fence and the life we had made for ourselves. There was a fork in the road of life - let this tragic event consume me or learn many life lessons and embrace the positive. I choose the latter. I think about him each and every day and try to predict his opinion when making decisions. We love him and miss him, however we speak of him with a smile!"
"I am 28 years old. Five months ago my life was perfect. I have been married for 1 year and my parents were married for 32 years. I have 3 sisters and 4 nieces. Five months ago after a normal night of laughing, joking and talking, my dad suffered an aneurism and was rushed to hospital. He died a week later. My husband and I were planning on starting a family next year but now I can't bear to bring another person into this world that I will love as much as my dad because I will be constantly scared of losing them. I am now just a scared lonely person who longs to talk and laugh with her dad. I'm scared I'll never be happy again."
Why are contamination stories so hard to hear?
Ironically enough, it is listeners' empathy that makes painful grief stories so hard to hear. A reasonably empathic listener can feel the griever's pain, which is in turn painful for the listener. The listener may then be motivated to escape the pain. A compassionate listener who is interested in helping the griever as well as himself would like to offer some kind of solution that dampens the pain. This is why listeners sometimes offer platitudes like "your son is in a better place now" or "his death was God's will". However, there is no easy way for the listener to significantly dampen the griever's pain. Realizing this, listeners may minimize their own exposure to pain by avoiding the griever. This is why bereaved people may be abandoned by their social networks.
This may leave bereaved people who carry a great deal of pain feeling that they cannot be honest about their pain and hopelessness because of the social consequences of such disclosure. Is there a way out of this dilemma? The following sections present advice for grievers who feel that others are avoiding them because of their pain, and for their would-be consolers.
TIPS FOR GRIEVERS
Listeners are alert to cues that you aren't going to be a huge burden to them. You can send them the message that you aren't going to burden them excessively in a number of ways, while still sharing your story.
1. Don't rehash the same negative story again and again. Research evidence is clear that rumination - going over the same sad feelings and thoughts again and again in an attempt to analyze and understand them - makes people feel worse. Going over the same story is unlikely to be healthy for your grief and it may alienate your consolers. How can one escape from cycles of rumination? First, accept your pain as a powerful and appropriate response to an awful event, be willing to feel it without fighting. Second, see if you have some openness to finding new perspectives, exploring your grief story from new angles. There may be an element of hope, however small, that can help you shift the story one that analyzes the events of the past to one that looks toward a more hopeful future. For example, if you can honestly say, "This grief journey has been excruciatingly painful. It sometimes feels like I'll never get over it, but I sometimes have more hope," then your listeners can recognize your search for redemption, and can cheer you on.
2. Be sensitive to listeners' needs. Be aware that a lot of listeners don't know how to respond to grief stories. Expect discomfort and misunderstanding from some listeners, and recognize that you are in a perfect position to educate them about what about what kind of support and comfort you need. You can only do that if you can step back enough to understand the difficulty of their position along with the pain of your own.
3. Ask for what you need. You can ask permission to talk about your grief for a bit, saying "it would really be a big help to you." This way you can introduce the topic, thank them for doing you a favor, and then assess their reaction.
4. Appreciate your listeners. Appreciate the willingness of your friends to overcome their own barriers and reach out to you. Tell them that you appreciate their support.
5. Choose your audience. Be selective about who you talk to about your grief. Some people are better than others at listening with empathy. Be selective. Pick a few good people who will really listen and understand. This eases the burden on any given person. And it's better than telling your story to anyone who'll stop and listen. Think about how certain people have responded in the past, and how you felt after talking to them. Were they good listeners then? Have they offered to spend time with you? You can also ask them if they'd mind talking to you about your loss and then keep your feelers out to assess their comfort level.
6. Seek help from therapists and support groups. Many people can feel your pain but they feel powerless to do anything about it. This is exactly the kind of situation in which people benefit from grief counseling. Unlike laypeople, counselors are specifically trained in hearing and responding to really devastating stories that would be very hard for most people to know how to respond to. People who have undergone particularly traumatic losses stand to benefit most from going to a grief support group, a therapist, or a person from their place of worship who is in charge of pastoral care. These resources can be valuable even if you have family and friends who are willing to listen, but who may not have the experience to really understand your story.
TIPS FOR CONSOLERS
1. Be there for the person. One of my favorite quotations is, "life is mostly froth and bubbles, two things stand like stone, kindness in another's trouble, courage in your own1." If you have ever undergone a personal crisis, you know that your friends' and loved ones' support and understanding can be a light in the darkness of your misery. If a friend of yours is grieving, you have the opportunity to provide this kind of invaluable support to him or her.
2. Listen and validate. Grievers want to feel heard. Validation means offering a simple and kind acknowledgement of what the griever has told you. For example, it is validating to say to the griever, I can tell how painful this is for you. People are sometimes nervous about offering validation or acknowledgment of another's pain for fear that it will make the pain worse or more real. It won't. The pain is already real, and the most comforting thing you can do is to help the griever feel less alone in the pain - and that's what validation does. It tells the hurting person that (s)he has been seen by someone else. When you offer validation, you don't need to make, fix, or solve anything. The only thing that would take the pain away is reversing the loss, and both you and the griever know that this is not possible. Until a griever feels heard, he or she may keep trying to tell you the same story. A simple, heartfelt acknowledgment of a griever's pain will help the griever feel supported and understood.
3. Don't minimize or talk in platitudes. There is a temptation to comfort the bereaved with platitudes like It'll get better over time. You're still young enough to have another child. It was God's will, or even, I understand how you feel. Research suggests that consolers offer such platitudes out of anxiety, and that they actually backfire. As well-intentioned as these platitudes may be, they can be hurtful because they minimize and ignore the griever's current pain and effectively shut the griever down from further expressions of negative emotion.
How can you avoid platitudes? First, learn how to recognize a platitude. Platitudes are cliches, so they come across as non-genuine. Platitudes are intended to offer comfort, but they offer comfort cheaply, without sufficiently acknowledging pain. Check in with yourself before you offer comfort to a bereaved person. Or does the comfort ring false if you really think about it? Does it have the effect of telling them that their pain is unnecessary or wrong? If the answer to these questions is yes, it's a platitude.
4. Respect your own needs. It can be very difficult to remain supportive to a person who is in great pain for a long time. Ask yourself honestly how much and what kind of support you are willing to give without becoming resentful or burned out, and then give that support. If you can define your boundaries and stick to them, you're more likely to be a source of support in the long run without burning out.
This article was previously published on the Open to Hope website.
1 from the poem "Finis Exopatus" by Adam Lindsay Gordon.