Life Lessons Learned From… Kicking the Elephant Out of the Room

Death. Illness. Divorce. Job loss. We will all inevitably encounter hard times through devastating losses in our lives. It is through how we deal with our grief and eventually rebuild from tragedy that we discover the full capabilities of the human spirit. Someone who has known this well over the past two years is Sheryl Sandberg.

In Sandberg’s latest book, Option B, the Lean In Foundation founder and Chief Operating Officer of Facebook draws from the experience of her late husband’s death to open up the discussion around building resilience in the face of adversity. The concept of post-traumatic growth and finding greater strength and deeper meaning in the wake of crushing blows resonates with me. In particular, I found the chapter on kicking out “the elephant in the room” to be most profound. During a loved one’s time of bereavement, we tend to avoid discussions on loss and grief, which, will well-intentioned, can actually have the opposite effect of providing comfort during tough times. This is a hard truth we need to rectify.

There is a cultural pressure to conceal the surfacing of negative emotions and painful experiences by avoiding discussing uncomfortable and upsetting topics. We fear saying the wrong thing, bringing up unwanted pain, overstepping their boundaries, or being a bother to the grieving individual. This feeling that nothing you can say can actually help is stifling, so the choice to say and do nothing seems to be the best choice for both parties. However, withholding the comfort you can give due to these fears can actually add to the pain the person is feeling. By ignoring the reality, those who are grieving are isolated and those who could offer support add to the distance instead.

If you want to reach out to a friend or a family member in grief, consider these ideas offered in Option B:

  • Ask questions and empathically listen without judging their responses or attempting to fix their hardships. While asking “how are you” seems so hollow, asking “how are you today” acknowledges what the person is going through and demonstrates genuine care.
  • “If there’s anything I can do to help” is a genuine offering but offers little fulfillment. In fact, it shifts the burden to the person you’re offering help to to figure out what they need. People undergoing loss or grief may want to ask for help but don’t know how, and they also don’t want to be a burden. Just do something you know they need done, such as running a daily errand for them. When reaching out, tell them “I’m calling you” or “I’m coming over… Is that okay?” Just show up. Simply showing up can make all the difference. And even if they refuse, just know your gesture was appreciated.
  • A parent who suffered the worst loss imaginable—the death of a child—believes in speaking openly and frequently about his late daughter because, in his words, “our child dies a second time when no one speaks their time.” This line in particular stuck with me when reading this chapter. Many of those in grief do want to talk about who (or what) they lost. Sometimes they want to remember them, to continue their legacy, or remember they meant something. To open up the conversation, ask “If you are comfortable with sharing, can you tell me some of your favourite memories with your loved one?” You can share your own stories to keep the good memories alive.

For survivors of loss, silence is crippling and can bring more suffering. After experiencing loss, we want to know we’re not crazy, to feel we have support, and to be understood. The best gift you can give to someone is to listen. Just let it be known that you are and will be there for them. By addressing the elephant in the room, you can help alleviate their pain and shine a light of hope along their path, as a good friend does.

Image by Andy Brunner.

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