This is the second in a 3-part series about how to speak about one’s grief.

Listeners are alert to cues that you aren’t going to be a huge burden to them. Here’s how 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. Second, try to explore your grief story from new angles. There may be an element of hope, however small, that can help you shift the story from 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. Choosing 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. 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. Seeking 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. 

In part 3 of our 3-part series, we’ll offer tips for “consolers” — those who are willing to listen and support people in grief.

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Jenna Baddeley

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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