Fear and NOT Talking About Death

“What if people think I’m crazy?”

“What if they think I sound ‘woo-woo’ and won’t understand?”

“What if no one has had an experience like mine?”

“What if it was all in my head?”

“What if I’m wrong to feel resentment…relief…anger…happiness…?”

“What if I’m getting grief wrong? Doing it wrong?”

“What if I’m not ‘recovering’ fast enough?”

“What if my friends don’t want to be around me because I’m sad?”

“What if I make other people uncomfortable by my sadness or grief? Or what if I make them uncomfortable by telling them about what I saw?”

Grief can be one of the most isolating experiences. Many Americans live through the loss of a loved one either alone or with a small group of immediate family. It is a powerful experience filled with a myriad of emotions and each experience is different and unique. 

But we don’t talk about it…not much, anyway.

When someone gets engaged or has a baby, we want to hear all about it! The stories are told again and again and people ask us to recount the events for years to come:

“What was it like?” 

“Where were you?” 

“How did it feel? Were you excited?”

People beg us to talk about some of the experience so they can jump into the story with us and join  in the excitement. They want to be a part of the action and feel all of the emotions right along with us. We’re happy to share because these are big events and it helps to bring others into the enormity if it. Besides, we’re excited and happy and can’t wait to talk about it.

But when the partner or child dies, there isn’t a demand to share, a request to be invited into the space. There are apologies and condolences, “thoughts and prayer,” and silence…lots of silence. 

When no one asks, we don’t share. People who have experienced a great loss are overwhelmed by their emotions and have few places to release them. Without the invitation, it feels as though permission to speak isn’t granted. The grieving stay silent and try to work it out on their own. 

It’s as though a tornado has hit their lives but the world implies they should keep the storm confined within the walls of their homes so it doesn’t make a mess in other people’s yards. The winds roar and lash about, wreaking havoc on the furniture, the inhabitants, the memories of the home, all the while the view from outside the house seems perfectly normal. 

The people inside are expected to be experts in the field of tornado wrangling and manage it on their own. They can stay inside until they have tamed the storm enough to step out of the house with only minimally disheveled hair and clothing. They are permitted to look not quite put together but true messiness, signs of the lashing winds and rains of pain, are not allowed.

But how do we learn to navigate or manage this thing we call life? By example, by having good teachers, by mentors showing us the way. And yet, we do not provide this for one another for the grieving process. When the pain of death arrives, we close the doors. Either we do not let others in or we do not want to enter the grief of another ourselves. That is “private” and space should be given.

After the need for privacy and distance is met, we remain at a distance. Not many people ask how we really are and they would like to be able to tell others that we’re “handling it well.” The initial fury of grief might be over, but the debris field remains. That, too, many people are left to clean up alone.

We could say, “Then they need to find a grief counselor.” YES! That would be wonderful! Too few people take advantage of the help a licensed therapist can offer, especially one who specializes in the labyrinthine journey of grief. Recommending this to loved ones who have experienced loss is always a good idea.

However, when we try to pass along the task of listening, we lose out by failing to learn from the  experiences of those who are mouring. We need to hear about grief from those in the throes of it. We need to hear about their mix of emotions when they’re ready to speak, because one day we too will face our own storm and need some sort of compass. Listening to the journeys of others offers an anchor, or at least a guidepost, when we will feel lost and won’t know how to breathe, much less forge a path forward.

When I lead retreats or speak with groups, I am honored and impressed by the people who have the courage to speak first. They push themselves past all of the questions and fears, risking vulnerability to tell stories about what they felt, saw, and heard at the time of a loved one’s passing. 

There are more who wait until the session is over to come to me quietly and say, “I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this, but when my (loved one) died, I felt/saw/experienced….Have you ever heard of anything like that?” They are afraid to mention this in front of others out of fear because we do not tell the stories to one another and haven’t for generations. They risk enough by speaking with me after and I am honored by their trust.

For every story that is waiting to be told there is someone else out there who thinks they are utterly alone for thinking or feeling the same thing. They are afraid of sharing lest someone think they have a mental disorder. Some are even afraid to speak for fear of finding out they actually do have a mental disorder, which is remarkably disheartening to me. Grief is such a mysterious and misunderstood process that the experience of it leads people to fear they have a diagnosable condition.* (Please see my footnote below for more about this).

We don’t know what to expect so we think anything we experience is likely outside the “norm.” We think grief must look a certain way and other people know how to manage it, that we are the strange ones, the failures, who don’t immediately know what to do. The silence of our culture around death, dying, and grief, ends up ringing out as loud judgment on anyone who experiences more than a perceived “allowable” amount of grief and sadness.

Will it make us uncomfortable? Yes. Will we feel like we are not equipped for such conversations? Absolutely. Do we NEED to open spaces for friends and family to talk about their grief? One hundred percent. We need it for them and for us. We need to show them our love and our willingness to try to understand them. But we also need to hear about their losses for when our own come. 

We need to receive their wisdom, their fears, their sadness, their joy, their relief, their messiness because that is the key to escaping shame. When grief isn’t discussed, shame is given every opportunity to shout at the grieving that they are handling it all wrong. In silence, the shame grows because shame loves a lack of understanding and knowledge.

If you know someone who is grieving, try to push past your fear and offer to be present to them. You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to do anything. You merely need to be able to sit and hear what they have to say without passing judgment. They need to speak and you need to listen.

*Above I mentioned the fear people have of speaking about their grief because they don’t want to be diagnosed with some mental disorder. This is a real fear for people. That fear also speaks volumes about the stigma of mental illness that infects our culture today. I don’t have time in the confines of this blog post to discuss this but this too is a cultural dis-ease that must be addressed. Mental illness is an illness, same as any other, and should be treated as such. If you have a broken bone, you are not judged as morally corrupt in some way. You simply see an orthopedist for treatment. Similarly, if you have a mental disorder, you are not fundamentally horrible or wrong or morally lacking or defective. You have a condition that needs to be addressed, same as any ailment, and needs professional treatment to help manage it. Same as a diabetic might need insulin. Let us make a better effort of speaking openly and without judgment about mental illness, the same as we need to speak openly about death and grief.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike Maley says:

    Hey Mary,
    I just read a very powerful book about grief called “A Heart that Works” by Rob Delaney. I think it would be a good reference for someone who is grieving.


    1. I certainly will check this out! As many resources as possible are great to have for folks. Some books speak to some while others are just the thing for other people. Thanks for the suggestion!


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