Talking without actually talking about it
October 11, 2022 9:49 AM   Subscribe

How can I talk to someone close at a sad time without making them sadder?

My sister lost her husband about 10 weeks ago, relatively young. She is processing it, and functioning -- back to her high-engagement career, took her oldest to start college, visited him for parents weekend -- and also taking it hard, as you might imagine.

We spoke the day of the funeral, but not in any depth, as she had a lot to deal with. Since then, I've left her a few voicemails, making it clear she doesn't have to call back. She's taken me up on that, and indicated she appreciated it. We've texted a little, but I don't want to be yet another burden right now. For context, we only talked every so often beforehand -- months could go by -- but when we did, it was always a good conversation. I've been assuming she's just had limited bandwidth, both timewise and emotionally -- that it's not that she doesn't want to talk to me specifically, but that she's not eager to talk about his death and the aftermath, including how she's feeling now.

I'm assuming at some point she'll pick up when I call. I don't want to ask stupid questions when she does, but I don't seem to know any of the smart ones. Are there some best practices for this conversation? I understand the idea is that I'm happy to talk/listen about it, and happy not to for as long as the latter is what she needs, but have no idea how the conversation goes otherwise. I'm betting I can manage to ask how the kids are without heavy-handedly steering things toward their emotional well-being if she wants to stay away from the topic, but can't quite see how the conversation goes under these circumstances.
posted by troywestfield to Human Relations (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Trust her to direct the conversation where she needs it to go at the time. If she wants to talk about it or about how the kids are coping with their loss she will, if she wants to talk about how they are doing at college or about the weather or about her 'random unrelated problem' or if she wants to hear all about how you've been doing and not talk about herself at all she'll do that.

There is also the fact that grief is a very long-term process. And most people expect you to get on with things after a while, especially if a person seems functional and 'coping well'. If you can be one of the very few people who will ask how she's doing and the person who is willing to talk about the painful stuff if she needs to that would also be invaluable - especially if you can ask every few months.
posted by koahiatamadl at 10:00 AM on October 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

Maybe, if you want to be a person she feels comfortable talking with about her loss, you could explicitly invite that. Something like, "I'm happy to talk about whatever you want, including anything you want to say about how you're grieving [spouse]. I know we're not every-day phone talkers, but our relationship means a lot to me and I want to be here for you."

Then listen. If she doesn't take you up on it, don't press.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 10:18 AM on October 11, 2022 [8 favorites]

I find it best to just have ONE difficult conversation up front about it. "Hey, I want to stay in touch and I also don't want you to dread my calls, so how about this: unless I am urgently concerned about your well-being I'm not going to Talk About The Thing, but you are always always always invited to Talk About The Thing any time and any way you wish. I'm never going to judge you for your feelings or reactions, I'm aware this is not a process that is all pretty and tidy like a movie, and anything you say to me about it will be kept in confidence unless I am urgently concerned about your safety and even that I will discuss with you first."
posted by Lyn Never at 10:21 AM on October 11, 2022 [20 favorites]

Might be nice to invite her for a relaxing weekend together at a fancy hotel. Things are hard to talk about from a distance & talking is probably the last thing she needs.
posted by bleep at 10:23 AM on October 11, 2022

"How are things going?" is a nice non-specific question that she can choose to answer however she wants. Lead with that and if she doesn’t choose to talk about her processing move on to the normal things you usually talk about.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:33 AM on October 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks very much for all the responses so far. I think I did a bad job describing what advice I'm hoping for. I think I can get the 'ready to talk about it, whenever you want, or also never' part ok. I'm just not clear what else to say. All topics seem fraught; e.g., not sure why she should give a crap what I'm up to these days, though happy to talk about it if that's what she seems to want. Talking about my kid is about the only thing I can think of. So more wondering how people navigate a phone call if the response to 'happy to talk about how you're doing and also to not talk about it, if you prefer' is 'thanks, yeah, prefer not to.'
posted by troywestfield at 10:35 AM on October 11, 2022

I would keep doing what you’re doing. Talk a bit less than usual and follow her lead. Make sure you process your own grief with someone else so you can just be a safe space for hers. The “comfort in, dump out” framework is helpful.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:36 AM on October 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Suggestion; Let her choose if and when to bring the topic up; ask how she is, and if there is anything you can do, and when she says no, accept that and move on - talk about anything, anything at all - because what people who have suffered loos don't get is a break from bearing the news - I went insane with people trying to be helpful and talk about it - when actually all I wanted and needed was to listen to something other than my own thoughts expounded by others despite best intentions... my best friend was the exception, because he knew. Talk about anything else, at all. Don't make a big deal out of it, don't ascribe weight to it, just talk. People, weather, things, as you like it.
posted by DrtyBlvd at 10:38 AM on October 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Sounds like her own kid's experiences would be an okay alternative topic right now? He just went off to college, she just went to parents' weekend, must be a lot going on there.
posted by praemunire at 10:40 AM on October 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

I wouldn't worry too much about keeping a hard and fast line between her husband's death and other topics. As long as you're asking open-ended questions, like "how's [kid's name] doing in college? what are his classes this semester?" your sister will be able to decide how heavy she wants to let the conversation get. Given how integral her husband was to her life, it will be hard to avoid all topics that somehow connect to him, but if you keep the questions broad enough, you won't be forcing her to talk about it if she doesn't want to.

On a different note - were you close at all to her husband? Are you grieving? If so, writing her a letter/email about how much her husband meant to you, and memories of him that you look back on fondly, would be a nice way of making her feel less alone in her sadness.
posted by coffeecat at 10:52 AM on October 11, 2022

My experience was that people tend to overestimate the degree to which talking about grief is a burden to the grieving person, and underestimate how much people who are grieving actually want or need to talk about it, but shy away from it because other people seem uncomfortable. If I were you, I'd make explicit that while she doesn't have to talk about her husband or her grief, you're a person she can talk about that to, and it's not a burden on you, and you're happy to talk about him or about her feelings. It's not like she can be distracted from his death by small talk about college weekends. She's thinking about it all the time. It can be nice to have someone explicitly acknowledge that and make room for it.
posted by decathecting at 10:57 AM on October 11, 2022 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Don't censor his name. After someone dies, it can feel like people are afraid to acknowledge that they ever existed. If she says something that reminds you of a great story about him, don't bite it back. It's good to hear other people remember.
posted by kate4914 at 11:05 AM on October 11, 2022 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I agree that most grieving people would prefer their grief not to be the elephant in the room just because it is scary and uncomfortable. I just spent a little over a year doing volunteer grief support, and grieving people are going to be sad - which is fine!!! it will not harm you!! - sometimes, and grieving people have a certain amount of their bandwidth always eaten up by grief. It is always there. Not talking about it would be like pointedly not talking about her kid or the town she lives in.

And to that end, the only person who can tell you what isn't okay to talk about is your sister. That's going to change from day to day and maybe minute to minute sometimes. You need to be okay with her sadness and not try to control or manipulate it, and you should have a metaconversation with her to ask what she needs at this time and then do that, and then notice in the future when she adds additional notes or color to what is and isn't okay for her. Asking her what she needs is a kindness and a gift; grieving people end up having to carry SO MUCH OTHER PEOPLE'S BAGGAGE, it's refreshing to have one's own feelings come first.

But you definitely can offer to not surprise her with talk about it, which is what I meant by offering to not initiate discussion about it if that is something she finds jarring or fears when walking into conversations.

Don't stress too much about being a "burden" by asking for her time; a lot of grieving people end up abandoned by people who've come up with excuses to not engage because it's uncomfortable. You've both had a big life event that tends to change how people think about family and connection, it would be normal to start trying harder now. Maybe offer to set a weekly or biweekly phone date that works with her other life administration schedules, make it a habit, make it less fraught to talk.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:16 AM on October 11, 2022 [3 favorites]

A dear friend of mine on the other side of the world lost her husband pretty young a year ago and I think one of the things that worked well for us in the same situation, was my willingness to spout trivial nonsense, even when I felt strange doing it in that context.

She was surrounded by people wanting to have Meaningful Conversations About Life and Death, so getting Telegram messages from me about a stupid pair of shoes I'd bought or a ridiculous work occurrence just gave her a break and a moment of normality, and established a habit of keeping in touch regularly. Every now and again I'd be like "I know this is absolute nonsense and your life has fallen apart, by the way, it's just by means of distraction" and every now and then she'd drop in something really heavy in the midst of the trivial chat, just as it arose.

I think just having an established text chat habit meant the difficult stuff could be broached in small chunks when she wanted to and she could bookend it with lighter chit chat that stopped her feeling overwhelmed by it. She knew that the trivial stuff was also an expression of my caring and wanting to be there for her in a way that was easy. Most of all, I didn't want to do that thing Lyn Never mentions of backing off because I didn't know what to say, so just saying something friendly and low-pressure felt important - demonstrated to her that "our friendship is still here, even though the rest of your world has changed."

I don't know how that would all translate to phone calls, if that's your preferred medium, but maybe a weekly/alternate weekends call where you aim to update her on what you've got going on, ask what she's got happening, and listen to whatever she says, would be the thing.
posted by penguin pie at 11:35 AM on October 11, 2022 [7 favorites]

Best answer: What kinds of things do you usually talk about with her?

You might try to pay attention to whether there are shows, movies or books you know she likes that you could check out, or things she might like and talk to her about those.

Does she like to talk about food? Does she like to talk about travel? Does she like to talk about clothes or animals or science news or politics? She's still the same person, I would try not to reduce her to her grief.
posted by ewok_academy at 11:38 AM on October 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

It sounds like her home probably feels a LOT lonelier than it did - down an adult man and a college kid. Is there any way you can bring dinner over and just hang? You can get the kid and probably the mom to talk about what's actually going on in their lives, school, work, and maybe bring a little warmth.

I think it's likely that the conversation will flow more easily in person and with food.
posted by amtho at 11:42 AM on October 11, 2022 [4 favorites]

So more wondering how people navigate a phone call if the response to 'happy to talk about how you're doing and also to not talk about it, if you prefer' is 'thanks, yeah, prefer not to.'

Whatever you would normally talk about. Hopefully you remember some detail of your previous conversations -- write everything down if you think you'll need prompts when talking to her.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:44 PM on October 11, 2022 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So more wondering how people navigate a phone call if the response to 'happy to talk about how you're doing and also to not talk about it, if you prefer' is 'thanks, yeah, prefer not to.'

It's been seven months since my wife died at the young age of 53.

Talk about what you'd normally talk about when you call. Carry the conversation if need be, but don't push it if she seems like she's not there. End every phone call, and I do mean every one, by making clear that you're there for her.

But mostly talk about and listen and see what others things are troubling her. Find out her favorite snack or place to visit and mail the snack or buy her gift certificate to one of those favorite places.

This is all general advice. You know her better than we do, so you'll have to tailer things about a bit for her personality. Going and hanging out for while could be good, so you two do sisterly things that you always enjoy doing. Or you help with her kids while there. Buy her a week or several of prepared meals. Send a cleaning service. Some of this gets down to just doing, not asking, because often when the grieving person is asked for help, it can be overwhelming because the thing they want most (for that person to be alive) is not possible.

Here's some advice from a grief counselor, who wrote a very useful to me book about grieving. It's at the website below and has a section on how friends and family can possibly help. Go to this website and read what is written there for some notes. Not everything will apply to your situation, but I bet some of it will.

Some of the best advice and offers that I got was from friend who made it very clear that they would be there for me, even if it was just silent company while I waked or sat and bawled my eyes out. Another was just an offer to come over and hang out and do whatever, even if it was just to watch tv. These offers were definitely geared towards my personality, by people who knew and understood me.

I hope this helps.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:36 PM on October 11, 2022 [6 favorites]

Ask her. I don't know if you want to talk about Joe or not, I'm here for you if you want to talk about him or if you want to tell me about something entirely other.

Most grieving people I've known want to talk about their loved one, esp. ayear or 2 on, when everyone else has moved on.
posted by theora55 at 6:11 PM on October 11, 2022 [2 favorites]

Best answer: One other small thing that occurs to me on reading theora55's comment is to remember that mentioning her husband doesn't have to mean talking about his death - especially the more that time passes. I think what sometimes happens, is that people don't know how to deal with talking about death, so they just stop mentioning the person at all, because as soon as they mention his name, it's like a big panic light goes off in their head saying "He's dead! You don't know how to deal with this! Back off!".

Whereas it's also totally possible, and helpful, to talk about him without it being in the context of death. His life is still part of hers - the things they did together, the child they raised, the stuff they bought together, the photographs they took, are all still part of her life, and being able to mention that time that funny thing happened with Joe, without seeing all the blood drain from people's faces, is a gift.
posted by penguin pie at 4:20 AM on October 12, 2022 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: thanks very much to everyone for their thoughts. it seemed ridiculous to mark literally every answer as best, but if there was an option for great answers, i'd mark pretty much all of them.
posted by troywestfield at 6:19 AM on October 12, 2022

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