Is the Elephant in the Room Sitting on Your Lap?

My dad lost his leg from a motorcycle accident when he was 19 and my mother lost her toe from lawn mower incident when she was in her 30’s. It was a running joke in my family, that together, my parents had 14 toes. Having spent a lot of time with my dad at the public pool as a kid, I often noticed strangers giving sideways glances, but desperately pretending they were not looking. The same is true whenever I have taken my mother for a mani/pedi. Everyone recognizes something unusual, yet no one feels comfortable commenting on it, so they pretend they don’t notice. If you asked either of my parents what happened, they wouldn’t think anything of it, and would tell you very interesting stories.

So why is it human nature to avoid discussing the obvious? I notice this same phenomenon where death is concerned. When someone loses a loved one, people often try to avoid the topic for fear of upsetting the person who is grieving. Do we honestly believe that this will make the person dealing with death no longer think about their lost loved one? For when a person experiences death, there isn’t a waking moment when they are not thinking about this loss and feeling the pain. Then why do we feel like we cannot speak about these people who have passed?

This really has little to do with our concern for hurting the other person and everything to do with our lack of understanding on how people grieve and our own fear of death. We are the ones feeling uncomfortable, so much like the proverbial “elephant in the room,” we pretend it’s not there, and talk about everything else. I see this time and again when someone learns that my sister lost her only child, they either can’t change the subject quick enough, or look for a reason to leave the room. I have seen everyone’s discomfort when she meets new people who ask her if she has children, because the minute she says, “yes, but she died” people don’t have a clue how to behave.

For some, this brings up the horrible possibility that their children too could be tragically taken. For others, this may force them to see their own mortality, but almost always, people avoid discussing the person who has passed out of fear.

However, this is exactly the opposite of how we should approach these situations. For a grieving person, they need to speak about their loved one. They want to share stories, to discuss their loved one’s quirks, and feel safe telling others how much they are missed. When a loved one dies, we may become more accustomed to the pain associated with death, but it never goes away. Yet, sharing memories about our loved one brings them back to life, if only for a moment or two.

If we truly want to be kind, we should approach uncomfortable conversations head on! Being direct in a kind and compassionate way, not only makes others feel noticed, but demonstrates that we are acknowledging their pain, and supporting them. Loss, pain, and emotional challenges are a way of life, and sometimes asking questions and sharing our stories helps others to know they are not alone. True, we may not know what it feels like to lose a son, mother, brother or father, but we have all experienced pain and loss, and can offer a sympathetic ear to those in need.

When interacting with people who are dealing with death, be brave! Ask them to tell you about their loved one! Ask to see photos, to share stories, to genuinely ask how they are dealing with this loss. Our concern and curiosity is not rude, but rather a demonstration of our compassion for another human being’s pain.