Speaking of Grief: Can We Really Be Honest?

This is the first in a 3-part series about how grievers speak about their losses.

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 and stories that tell of a good life being utterly derailed by such a loss. Here are examples of each one.

Emotional recovery after a loss: 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!

Good life derailed after a loss: 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 is the second story so difficult 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?

In parts 2 and 3 of our series, we’ll present advice for grievers who feel that others are avoiding them because of their pain, as well as advice for their would-be consolers.

Jenna Baddeley

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Jenna Baddeley is working on a Ph.D. in clinical and social/personality psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the behavioral manifestations and social consequences of psychological pain. She has conducted and published research on why and how bereaved people tell stories of their losses, and on the social consequences of talking about loss or remaining silent about it. She has studied the usefulness of expressive writing for returning soldiers and their spouses. Currently she is studying how depressed individuals behave in their everyday lives, and especially how they talk with the people around them. She writes the blog “Embracing the Dark Side” for Psychology Today. She is also a therapist in training. To Listen to Jenna on Open to Hope Radio

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