Talking about death is hard. The loss of a loved one can be one of the most overwhelmingly painful experiences of life.
A large part of this pain, quite naturally, is caused by the absence of one who was cherished. However, part of the pain of grief consists of the loneliness and fear that also often accompany death.
Frequently, those who grieve find that the people around them do not want to talk about, or that people’s empathy and support begin to fade after a few months.
At the same time, the mourner often feels a need to share their continued sadness, or to talk about the person who is now gone.
The result is often a loss of social networks and a sense of isolation as people withdraw (or appear to withdraw) from the mourner.
Why do we have such a difficult time talking about death and what can we do about it?
Avoiding Conversations About Death
Avoiding conversations about death and dying has a psychological basis.
And what psychologists and other experts point out is that, while not talking about death is natural, it is those very conversations that can hold the key to healing from grief.
People naturally avoid talking about death because the subject reminds them of their own mortality.
Discussing the passing of another, therefore, can make death feel uncomfortably close, and can make people feel helpless to contribute to the mourner’s healing.
Death is an uncomfortable topic for many people because it reminds them that they too will die someday, perhaps sooner than they wish.
Psychologists use the term “terror management theory” to refer to the fear that people experience when thinking about their own death, and the actions they take to avoid the subject.
Terror management theory says that people naturally engage in behaviour that minimizes the need to reflect on the terror-inducing fact that they will die.
The passing of someone, and the intense grief experienced by that person’s loved ones, can make death feel very close. In order to distance themselves from death, (as part of their terror management efforts) people tend to avoid the mourners.
In addition, even empathy can result in avoidance of death discussions, according to psychologists. Feeling another’s pain can cause discomfort and distress for sympathetic listeners.
When people find themselves unable to take that grief away, therefore, they naturally withdraw in an attempt to remove themselves from the source of their discomfort.
Despite people’s natural inclination to avoid discussing death, it is those very conversations that can help mourners to heal. Open and honest discussions about death can help mourners to identify and deal with the strong emotions that accompany grief.
Benefits of Talking About Death
Despite people’s desire to avoid talking about death, experts have long recommended that people discuss their grief.
For example, grief expert William Worden’s second task of mourning involves talking about the pain of grief in order to bring those feelings to the surface, where they can be dealt with.
Annie Broadbent, while not a psychologist, wrote a book We Really Need to Talk about Grief to highlight the importance of discussing death even when doing so is not comfortable.
According to psychologists, talking about grief has a number of benefits. Perhaps chief among them is the fact that doing so can help mourners to confront and deal with their feelings.
For example, talking with a good friend about your grief may bring feelings of anger to the surface that you may not have consciously realized were there.
Or going over memories of a loved one with another friend or family member might help you to feel a sense of peace.
Perhaps just as importantly, talking about grief allows the mourner to establish an important connection that prevents isolation, fear, and illness caused by suppressed emotions.
One of the reasons that professionals such as counselors, grief experts, and psychologists encourage the open and honest discussion of grief is because suppressing grief, and all the emotions that come with it, can be physically, mentally, and emotionally damaging.
Isolation, fear, and illness are all natural outgrowths of suppressed grief, making it more difficult to heal:
- Isolation: the sense of feeling alone and perhaps rejected, can be a natural outgrowth of suppressed grief.When someone feels unable to talk about their sadness, or when they feel as if the people around them are rejecting them because of their grief, they can begin to feel alone.This feeling is often compounded by the fact that they are already experiencing lonesomeness due to the loss of a cherished loved one.
- Fear: can also be a reaction to suppressed grief. As mentioned above, death can create feelings of fear and unease in others.When someone you love dearly has died, these feelings can be exacerbated, and with no place to discuss them, they can grow.In addition, fear of other things, such as being alone, feeling sad forever, or having to learn new things (such as doing things a deceased spouse used to do) can all be compounded when this fear is not discussed.
- Illness: the emotions that come with bottling up emotions can also take a physical toll, according to experts.For example, one ten-year study found found that women who did not talk about their emotions during an argument were four times more likely to die.More concretely, emotional suppression, including the suppression of grief, has been linked to higher levels of stress, higher levels of mental illness, lower immune system functioning, and greater incidences of illnesses such as heart disease.
Talking About Death With Supportive People
Clearly, talking about death, as well as taking concrete actions to memorialize the deceased, can help grieving individuals to feel as if they can move on from the death.
The benefits of discussing grief are pretty clear.
But what is the bereaved to do if they feel that their friends and family are unwilling to continue discussing the loss?
First, establishing a network of several people who are willing to talk about the loss can help spread the burden of grief so that it does not fall on a single friend or family member.
Second, it may be necessary to find a support network outside one’s friends and family.
For example, a counselor or a grief support group can offer a more intensive and helpful kind of support for people who are struggling with their grief journey.
In addition, professionals such as counselors can often provide practical and useful suggestions for healing.
Third, you may wish to consider taking concrete actions to memorialize the deceased.
Experts have long recognized the psychological benefit of mourning customs such as funerals in helping people to heal from their grief.
Taking steps such as holding a scattering ceremony for the deceased’s ashes, writing a poem about their lives, planting a tree in their honor, or having their ashes turned into a cremation diamond, can bring a sense of closure and peace.
Regardless of how you choose to deal with your grief, the key is to acknowledge your feelings and deal with them, rather than stuffing them away inside.
By openly and honestly talking about death and handling your emotions, you will be able to more quickly heal from your grief, and find meaningful ways to honor the one you loved so much.