Talking about death makes most of us really uncomfortable. If the topic ever makes its way into a conversation, we avert our eyes, drop our voices lower and shift about awkwardly. Then comes the relief when the conversation flows into another topic.
At Bare, we know that simply being more open about death can transform our experiences with it, including reducing fear of death, learning better coping strategies when working through grief and planning ahead to reduce the burden on loved ones.
Keep reading to learn more about how talking about the people we’ve lost can not only help us through grief and loss, but also keep their memories alive.
It’s time to stop avoiding talking about death and loss.
Let’s create a conversation scenario: you’re chatting with someone you don’t know very well, and the topic of parents comes up. You ask the other person about their mother, and their demeanour changes as they say “my mother passed away a few years ago.”
How do you respond? Do you say, “Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss”? Maybe they respond with “thank you” then you swiftly start talking about something else.
That’s how many of us react to this reveal of information, and we try to smoothly adjust to a different topic of conversation because it’s uncomfortable to talk about loss. And whilst that makes us feel better in the moment, it might not be helping the other person. Maybe that person wanted to talk about their mum for a couple of minutes and keep her memory alive by sharing some stories.
So what if we started responding differently? Rather than brushing off the mention of a deceased loved one, we ask questions such as “what was their name?” and “what were they like?”
The power in a name.
Most people talk about their deceased loved one without using their name. “My mum died.” “My husband died.” “My best friend died.” But names are incredibly powerful, and can help us feel closer to the deceased.
The next time you encounter this kind of conversation, instead of changing topics, try asking them what their loved one’s name was, giving them the opportunity to share if they’re comfortable.
Speaking Grief is a US organisation aimed at starting conversations about grief. As part of their grief resources, they have a section titled Say Their Name, where they talk about the honour given to the deceased by asking for their name. When interviewing people for their grief series, Speaking Grief asked people to share their deceased loved one’s name, and you could physically see the difference - they watched people’s faces change and light up at being asked about their loved one by name.
Often these people want to tell stories about their loved one, and simply being asked “what was their name” or “what were they like” allows them to stay connected and keep the memories alive.
You might feel like by asking these kinds of questions, you’re reminding them of their loss, when this simply isn’t the case. They are the ones living with the loss, so asking a question allows them to decide whether or not they’re in a place to have that conversation.
Below is a TikTok video where @hannahloynds talks about how powerful and incredible it was to be asked what her deceased brother’s name was.
Keeping the memories alive.
One of the biggest fears we have in losing a loved one is that they are forgotten. Once the dust settles and people stop checking up in the weeks and months after losing a loved one, are we just supposed to live on as if nothing happened?
By asking questions and being genuinely curious about the person you are talking to and their loss, you help reignite the spark. You help remind them that their loved one isn’t forgotten and still lives on in stories and memories.
These conversations are difficult.
You’re not a bad person for trying to avoid the difficult conversations. Death can be scary and uncomfortable to talk about, and we’ve been conditioned to shy away from death rather than face and embrace it.
And you might think you’re doing the right thing, because most of us have experienced grief and know just how hard and taxing it is. Who wants to open up that wound, especially with someone you don’t know well?
But some people do, and are more than capable of tackling the difficult conversation that is death and loss. The only thing separating us from them is being open to talk, and also having the right tools and preparation to go in and know the right thing to say.
Questions to ask people about their loved one to spark conversation.
Sometimes all it takes is knowing the right thing to say. Every loss and experience with grief is different, but hopefully these questions can guide you towards a beneficial and rewarding conversation for the both of you.
- What’s your favourite memory of them?
- Did they have a nickname?
- What kind of person were they?
- What were they passionate about?
- What did the two of you enjoy doing together?
What not to say.
Whilst your intentions might be good, it can do more harm than good to say the wrong thing to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one.
There are the obvious things not to say, such as “they’re in a better place now” or “everything happens for a reason”. Here are some more phrases to avoid and the reasons why:
- “I can’t even imagine going through that” - when you say something like this, you’re ‘othering’ the person and making them feel fundamentally different. You can imagine going through that loss, you just have the privilege of not needing to.
- “It’s time to let go” - this signifies that there is only a certain amount of time you can grieve before ‘moving on’, when you really can’t put a time limit on grief.
- “You’ll get over it eventually” - this is similar to the previous one, but can really diminish you and your grief, as if losing a person so integral to you is something you ever ‘get over’.
Final thoughts on talking about loss.
There is so much power in a single conversation. It can transform somebody’s day, for better or worse. If somebody mentions their deceased mother, sister, son, or close friend, chances are they want to talk about them. By allowing this person the opportunity to talk about their loss, you’re giving them a way to honour their deceased loved one and let their memory live on.
If you need immediate support, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Our Grief Resources are filled with articles and videos to help you navigate your journey through grief. You can also follow the link to book a consultation with our Grief and Bereavement Specialist, Claire.