It can be hard to talk about grief, even when you know you need to. Why is this the case? How can you work through what makes grief difficult to discuss? And what can you do if you end up in a spot where you have to tend to others’ grief?
1. Talking about grief can feel like opening Pandora’s box
Have you ever felt like if you started crying, you might not be able to stop? Talking about grief can be a lot like that (as Jackson Galaxy discusses in the context of losing a pet).
You might feel as though, if you open the door and start to feel your grief, you might not be able to close the door–and that can be scary. You may not feel safe or ready to open yourself to such major emotions.
“Things get worse before they get better.” That can be especially true for grief. When you open the Pandora’s box of emotions you’ve been neglecting, it can feel overwhelming.
There may be feelings of depression, and all of the different stages and emotions that can come with grief. Some people wonder what grief should feel like, and the answer is that it can feel any number of ways. There is no wrong way to experience grief, but all its components are a lot to handle on your own.This is where it can be incredibly advantageous to have someone to talk to.
Opening the door = letting others in
Although it might feel like you are opening a door to a flood of emotion, think of it as opening the door to let other people in. Let others be there for you. This isn’t something that you want to push to the side or go through on your own; emotional repression can have very serious consequences, including those that affect your physical health.
You may reflect on your own initially, but support matters, so don’t hesitate to seek it. Know that you’re not a burden.
When to open up about grief, you might even open a conversation that others have been itching to have. People in your life may very well want to know how you’re doing or feeling, but they might not know how to ask. Alternatively, maybe you’re a family who is grieving together. If that’s the case, your openness may give other people the gift of a space to talk.
2. Society sometimes values stoicism (even if that’s not a healthy approach to grief)
Sometimes, in society, we reward stoicism in spaces and times where it is not a healthy approach or response. As a result, there can be fear and insecurity when it comes to talking about grief. When you experience grief, you might not want to talk about it because you don’t want to come off as weak, a complainer, or worse, as having a “pity party” for yourself. It can be crucial to remember that this is cultural and that it is not necessarily the most suitable option just because it’s normalized.
You can help re-write how others talk about grief
Think of it this way: If you want to talk about grief, if you feel like you would benefit from talking about grief, or if you discuss what’s going on in your life for any other reason, you are helping because you are actively creating a new norm and a new pattern for other people. Other people in your life may be more apt to come to you when they need it if you open up right now.
3. Talking about grief sometimes means managing others’ emotions
Sometimes, people don’t know what to say when it comes to grief. Especially if they haven’t been in a similar situation. Most of us have been on both ends of this. An individual expresses something that can be difficult to talk about – for example, an illness in the family, transphobia, or racism – and is met with the shock, sadness, or even disbelief of others.
This can be especially pervasive for marginalized groups talking about experiences of discrimination and violence. Often, would-be allies don’t know how to respond to expressed grief. As a result, what can happen is that a burden is placed on a person who is part of that marginalized group to be the explainer, or even to tend to other people’s emotions.
For example, someone might exclaim, “How can that happen?!” following a racist attack. The intention might not be negative, but the outcome is that, someone who is in-group who is very aware of how it can happen – and that it happens often at that – is now in the spotlight. With this expression of shock from the out-of-group person, they’re prompted to re-traumatize themselves by explaining that, yes, this is an unfortunately common experience – and comfort the aforementioned sadness and disbelief of someone who has a privilege that allows them to have never been in that place themselves.
Rejecting extra emotional labor
What can you say if someone, intentionally or not, asks you to comfort them about your own grief? “I’m hurting right now and am not in a place to educate others on this topic” is a perfectly valid response, as is “I’m hurting right now and need to take some time to myself.” Anything that allows you to excuse yourself and do what you need to do – which, often, will look like surrounding yourself with people who do understand or to use other forms of self-care.
What’s an alternative for those on the other end? An example of a helpful response, though it can vary based on the situation, might be, “I acknowledge that I haven’t been there. What can I do to support you?” Additionally, know that there are often free educational resources out there you can use to educate yourself.
How to break the door open and talk about grief more easily
If you have trouble talking about grief, what can you do to break the door open? Here are some steps to take:
1. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
It’s okay to experience discomfort. If you want to start talking about grief, or even if you want to start working through grief internally, it can help to learn to sit with discomfort. The goal isn’t necessarily to be comfortable all the time; sometimes, it is also okay to acknowledge and experience the feelings that aren’t so painless or fun. It’s not effortless, but you will likely be glad that you felt your emotions in the long run.
2. Be upfront about what you need from others.
Since it is indeed so ingrained in many people to pass grief off due to the discomfort, to value stoicism, and so on, one thing you can do to mitigate this is to tell people directly what you need.
Let them know that you are experiencing grief and want someone to listen, not offer advice, if that is what you’re looking for. Sometimes, people want to listen or otherwise offer support and care, but they don’t know how.
When you say something akin to, “Do you have time to listen while I talk about this? I don’t need advice, just an ear and some comfort,” you let people know how to be there for you, which can cut the discomfort on both ends.
3. Find people you can trust–and be selective.
You don’t need to talk to everyone you know about grief. However, it’s likely beneficial to speak to someone. Remember that your grief and your feelings matter and that you can be selective in who you share thoughts with. If it’s more comfortable when the support you get is anonymous, know that that’s also okay.
In order to feel safe in talking about grief, you have to trust that you’re talking to someone who has a healthy, or at least compatible, outlook on the process, themselves. It can help to look for a friend who is versed in mental health or who is generally attune with the emotions of themselves and others – someone who listens and is conscious of how they respond.
If you don’t currently have a friendship like this, where you feel welcome to talk about grief and know that the person will truly listen rather than passing what you say off with a cliché, there are options. It can help to find a support group or other forms of peer support. Often, there are actually support groups made specifically for those who are enduring grief. The support groups can be found online or in person, which makes them a safe and accessible option.
It can be tough to reach out, and sometimes, you don’t know who to turn to or don’t want to talk to someone in your inner circle. This is where peer support networks such as Supportiv can help. You deserve a safe place to talk about the tough stuff, and your peers are here to help.