How to start a conversation about grief


The 4 step guide you can use when approaching the topic of grief with friends and family.

Read Time: 4 Mins

Grief and death are seen as taboo within most cultures. We rarely discuss related emotions in depth with family members or friends out of fear of being misunderstood, breaking down in front of others or simply because we don’t know where to begin. This has led to many years of suffering people hiding these emotions away until a counselor or therapist can be seen.Unfortunately, long waiting times over run our health care systems and we need to start opening up this difficult conversation within our close knit groups. Starting conversations helps improve mental health, provides greater access to support and increases your progression through the different stages of grief. Talking about grief is no quick fix, but it is a step in the right direction, as we accept and actualise our emotions, understanding not only ourselves but also how we can help others. 

This guide has been designed to help you start these important conversations about grief and death with friends and family members. This guide emphasises the importance of your mental health and the mental health of the person/s you are talking to. 

  1. Where to begin – Like most things in life the first step is the most difficult. For many of us, talking about these emotions can feel incredibly tense as we worry about how we are perceived and run the risk of breaking down. To begin with we want to emphasize that almost everyone goes through grief. You are not alone. Grief is a universal emotion and though it is felt in varying ways, almost everyone can relate to the feelings you are going through. There is no shame in grief. 

Next is understanding the importance of mental health. One key notion we have noticed as mental health is talked about more in popular culture that hasn’t been addressed in depth – the emotional capability of yourself and the person you are talking to. Everyone has an emotional limit. We do not know everything that goes on in other people’s lives and so an emphasis on understanding their current state is just as important as yours. This does not mean your emotions are invalid, instead it means that we want to provide a balanced conversation. If the person you are talking to feels comfortable discussing grief then you will benefit more from the conversation. However, if the person is going through some difficult times then they can feel overwhelmed and you might not be able to have a balanced conversation.

The first step you need to take is meeting or digitally meeting in a private area, such as your home or via Facetime. Both of you will want to be somewhere you feel relaxed and free to express your emotions. Coffee shops are not the best places as they are noisy and can create some social pressure. Open the conversation calmly with casual ‘How are yous’?’ and work your focus into the conversation slowly. It is expected that the person/s you are talking to will know of your recent grievance thus it is likely they will bring up the topic before you. They will probably approach it by asking ‘I heard about…, are you ok?’ or some form of this question. This is your time to start talking about grief and as previously noted also your time to ensure they are okay talking about such topics. You could respond to the initial question by saying ‘I’m not feeling too great, would it be okay if we talk about it?’. This gives them time to understand your emotional state and also consider their own. 

There is no shame in grief.

  1. Which words to use? Grief is a complex emotion that has varying emotional stages, from anger to disbelief. This fluctuating nature can make it difficult to actually talk about how you feel as you might not be able to understand it yourself. One way to approach this is by processing how this unknown emotion affects your habits and behaviours. Lack of sleep, lack of interest in previously exciting activities and lost appetite are all habits that many grieving people go through. Though these are not core emotions like sadness or anger they are byproducts of how we feel. Talking about changing habits can help the person you are talking to understand your emotional state more without labeling an exact emotion. 

Remember numbness is also a prominent emotion produced by grief, so any lack of emotion could be a sign of numbness. 

Talking about such changes with someone else could open up a conversation focusing on how to overcome these changes. Lack of sleep could be helped through tools such as lavender or night time rituals that all aid the sleeping process, before taking the next step to GP prescribed medication if the change persists.

  1. What if I break down? An emotional outburst is almost expected and there is no shame in tears.In this instance we encourage a shift of vision. Instead of focusing on preventing an emotional outburst, focus more on what to do after. You will need to release built up emotion generally so creating a grounding method that brings you back from the much-needed outburst is the way forward. We suggest the counting method- this involves counting 5 items in the room you are in. You could count 5 things that are blue, or 5 things that begin with the letter T. This method brings you back into the room and can calm your nerves. Another method is to make a drink or to stand up and stretch. All these methods can be incorporated when wanting to come back from an outburst but what works for you is entirely personal. Try out a few tools and add them into your coping method list. 
  1. The result We need to manage our expectations when talking about grief. It is unlikely you will feel 100% better after the conversation and this is a fact we have to accept. Instead use the conversation to discuss emotions in a way that helps you understand them. Focus on next steps. Arrange to meet again perhaps to do an outdoor activity like cycling or to talk again when you both feel comfortable. 

Introducing another person into your grief circle will only benefit you as they can approach your hiccups in a way you hadn’t thought of before and provide useful advice.

Disclaimer – The Live On Community is a non-profit organisation dedicated to creating a supportive community for those experiencing loss and grief. We are not a replacement for health care, and are not professionally trained to provide beneficial health advice concerning mental and physical wellness.

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