Sunday, August 3, 2008

Embracing the Dark Side: Infashionable Advice to the Bereaved

Bereaved people carry a double burden: the pain of loss, and the pain and awkwardness of living in sadness among people who almost invariably would prefer not to hear about it. Bereaved people are acutely sensitive to others’ anxiety and avoidance and discomfort around their suffering. Many choose to remain silent rather than to disturb others.

Meanwhile, in another patch of our wonderfully diverse culture we encourage people to buck these inhibiting forces and to express their pain fully and frequently (fully, frequently, even elaborately). Confessional shows like Oprah go so far as to recruit people to express their personal pain to a television audience, i.e., completely without regard for the potential fear or flight of others.

Most people think that disclosing a negative experience like bereavement helps lessen its emotional burden, although the inherent benefits of bereavement disclosure are hotly debated in the psychology literature. What seems clear is that bereaved people’s disclosures often meet with unhelpful responses from others. In this course of my own research done on how people talk about bereavement experiences, my participants have often expressed anger about how others respond to them – about others’ lack of understanding, or lack of empathy, or excess of cloying pity. It is certainly true that others often don’t know how to say the right thing.

People who are trying to give comfort and support to the bereaved can learn from this advice. There are so many ways to say the wrong thing – which may be why the Jewish mourning tradition, among others, emphasizes just sitting with a griever in silence rather than attempting to offer verbal consolation.

It may not be fashionable to give advice to the bereaved, who deserve to be, for a time, the recipients rather than the givers of care. But I will give some advice anyway: expect discomfort and misunderstanding from some listeners, and recognize that you are in a perfect position to educate them about what about what kind of support and comfort you need. You can only do that if you can step back enough to understand the difficulty of their position along with the pain of your own. More important than that, though, is to appreciate the willingness of your friends to overcome their own barriers and reach out to you.

Perhaps grievers, rather than (just) their listeners, need to extend empathy to mend themselves and their relationships after loss.

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