How to talk to a loved one who is suffering
IN THE EARLY weeks after Dave died, I was shocked when I’d see friends who did not ask how I was doing.
I felt invisible, as if I were standing in front of them but they couldn’t see me. When someone shows up with a cast, we immediately inquire, “What happened?“ If your life is shattered, we don’t.
People continually avoided the subject. I went to a close friend’s house for dinner, and she and her husband made small talk the entire time. I listened, mystified, keeping my thoughts to myself. I got emails from friends asking me to fly to their cities to speak at their events without acknowledging that travel might be more difficult for me now. Oh, it’s just an overnight? Sure, I’ll see if Dave can come back to life and put the kids to bed. I ran into friends at local parks who talked about the weather. Yes! The weather has been weird with all this rain and death.
Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn’t know what to say to me or my kids. Their discomfort was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room went unacknowledged, it started acting up, trampling over my relationships. If friends didn’t ask how I was doing, did that mean they didn’t care? My friend and co-author Adam Grant, a psychologist, said he was certain that people wanted to talk about it but didn’t know how. I was less sure. Friends were asking, “How are you?“ but I took this as more of a standard greeting than a genuine question. I wanted to scream back, “My husband just died. How do you think I am?“ I didn’t know how to respond to pleasantries. Aside from that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
At first, going back to work provided a bit of a sense of normalcy. But I quickly discovered that it wasn’t business as usual. I have long encouraged people to bring their whole selves to work, but now my “whole self “ was just so freaking sad. As hard as it was to bring up Dave with friends, it seemed even more inappropriate at work. So I did not. And they did not. Most of my interactions felt cold, distant, stilted. In the moments when I couldn’t take it, I sought refuge with my boss, Mark Zuckerberg.I told him I was worried that my personal connections with our co-workers were slipping away. He understood my fear but insisted I was misreading their reactions. He said they wanted to stay close but they did not know how.
The deep loneliness of my loss was compounded by so many distancing daily interactions that I started to feel worse and worse. I thought about carrying around a stuffed elephant, but I wasn’t sure that anyone would get the hint. I knew that people were doing their best. Those who said nothing were trying to not bring on more pain; those who said the wrong thing were trying to comfort. I saw myself in many of these attempts—they were doing exactly what I had done when I was on the other side.
I thought back to a friend with late-stage cancer telling me that for him the worst thing people could say was, “It’s going to be O.K.“ He said the terrified voice in his head would wonder, How do you know it’s going to be O.K.? Don’t you understand that I might die? I remembered the year before Dave died when a friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, I thought the best way to offer comfort was to assure her, “You’ll be O.K. I just know it.“
Then I dropped the subject for weeks, thinking she would raise it again if she wanted to.
Recently, a colleague was diagnosed with cancer, and I handled it differently. I told her, “I know you don’t know yet what will happen—and neither do I. But you won’t go through this alone. I will be there with you every step of the way.“ By saying this, I acknowledged that she was in a stressful and scary situation. I then continued to check in with her regularly.
As people saw me stumble at work, some of them tried to help by reducing pressure. When I messed up or was unable to contribute, they waved it off, saying, “How could you keep anything straight with all you’re going through?“ In the past I’d said similar things to colleagues who were struggling, but when people said it to me I discovered that this expression of sympathy actually diminished my self- confidence. What helped was hearing, “Really? I thought you made a good point in that meeting and helped us make a better decision.“ Bless you. Empathy was nice, but encouragement was better.
I finally figured out that I could acknowledge the elephant’s existence. At work I told my closest colleagues that they could ask me questions and they could talk about how they felt too. One colleague said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Another admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should knock on the door. Once I told her that I wanted to talk to her, she finally rang the doorbell and came inside.
When people asked how I was doing, I started responding more frankly. “I’m not fine, and it’s nice to be able to be honest about that with you.“ I learned that even small things could let people know that I needed help: when they hugged me hello, if I hugged them just a bit tighter, they understood that I was not O.K.
Until we acknowledge it, the elephant is always there. By ignoring it, those in pain isolate themselves and those who could offer comfort create distance instead. Both sides need to reach out. Speaking with empathy and honesty is a good place to start.