When people say nothing

In another post https://distillinggrief.com/2023/05/06/what-do-i-say/ I explain some points about how to speak to those grieving, in this post I address how to understand and accept those who can’t say anything. 

Let’s face it; given a chance, people often take the easiest path. Perhaps part of our resentment of grief is rooted in the fact that we have be given no choice, that there is no easy path through this place we find ourselves in. 

It’s common that in hard situations many people will say nothing after you suffer an important loss. That lack of comment can make you angry, because surely people should say something shouldn’t they? Perhaps our expectations are too high; perhaps our understanding of their preparation and capacity for empathy and compassion is too presumptive.

Several factors play into our reaction to these scenarios of silence, the fundamental one is that the shock and pain of grief makes us extremely sensitive, it exposes our nerves. We easily find anger in early grief, and we look for places to direct and focus our anger. Often the person who says nothing is a logical target for our anger, and so we hold their silence against them. Doors close, and anger can nail them shut from either side.

Another factor is that people, in general, are not prepared to talk about loss because it’s intimate and there are too few answers. We initially see loss of a loved one as something complex that we can’t comprehend, or perhaps we hoped irrationally to avoid. It’s just too easy to come to resent those who can choose to avoid the hard parts of life that we are slogging through.

A common excuse is that they just didn’t know what to say, or they “didn’t want to make it worse”. The reality is that nothing is always the wrong thing to say, and even saying the wrong thing you are unlikely to cause more damage or make it worse.

People attend visitations without directly addressing the death, or even the life. We call it a “celebration of life” and they still remain mute and unspeaking because they don’t know what to say, no one has ever taught them how to deal with loss. They come for the food and drinks, and hope for light discussions with easy answers or talk about the weather. Again, it’s human nature to step around the hard parts.

Once we are some weeks clear of the mechanics of a funeral, those who have not yet spoken have “escaped” and only in rare cases will they break their silence. So, if they break their silence, give them a break and forgive them without need to discuss it. As they say: Better late than never.

The ones that still bother you, take the lead, be the person who breaks the silence. Do it for your comfort, not theirs. Months after our son died, I literally chased down a man who had been our neighbor. When I saw him in a parking lot, he turned away to avoid crossing paths with me. My comment when I caught up was simply “We were neighbors, we live in the same community, we belong to the same yacht club, and I understand that you don’t know what to say or how to say it, so how about we just share a hug so we can be comfortable when we next see each other?” After that hug we spoke for half an hour, we comfortably shared social space and conversations easily.

I think our hypersensitivity to others through grief, our seeking of points to place anger is all very natural, but well worth resolving so we can become more comfortable and less angry. But I think that we are right to allow ourselves disappointment rather than anger, and if we wish to we can educate and lead by example.

In some cases of silence, I have discovered that those people who don’t know what to say have had a special relationship with the lost loved one. Their loss may be deeper than our understanding, because they had a deeper relationship than we understood them to have. In grief, we become archeologists of the web of love that was shared with the one we lost, and we may be surprised or even shocked at how deeply others loved our lost loved one.

We humans, in general, feel vulnerable in loss. We distrust because we feel weakened and exposed. We expect that our loss will attract support, not drive people away. But any conversation during grief is a conversation about love lost. Men especially are reticent to engage, share a tear, or discuss feelings about love. If we can’t talk about it, grief becomes a windowless silo of loneliness.

Friends or family who can’t reach out might be friends or family at risk, so please try to find them instead of judging them. Knowing that you are strong enough to reach out will make it easier for them to open the door that should have never closed on them, the door that they should have kept open with you.

Last point is friends. Most of our friends in life are social and great fun. They signed on for that shallow part of life, not this hard part. A minority of friends, after loss, will remain or become worthy of seeing your scars, of a deep understanding of how you feel, how you think. You will be less likely to be invited to parties, your presence will often shape the party until some long time after the loss. If you’re lucky, as we were, several friends will become your new best friends and come to know you better than ever.  Often those are the friends who have experienced loss already in life, friends who understand the finite and fragile nature of life and the inevitability of even an untimely death. 

Grief changes you, you must choose how that change redefines you, you choose who you will become, you choose what and who you will love. Loss has changed your view, it has created a point where you must pivot, you must change, and you will be different.

Develop the wisdom to choose less anger and you will be better able to change positively through grief, become angry and you will diminish yourself in ways that your lost loved one would never respect you for.

Grief is the final responsibility for having loved someone, so grieve with love.

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