I Wish We Could Talk Openly About Tragedy Without It Being “Awkward”

tragedy communication plants

Tragedy, loss and hardship comes in multiple forms. We need to keep learning to be there for one another when we can.

About six years ago, I began experiencing serious health issues. After the grueling process of seeing specialist after specialist, it was determined that I would likely have to learn to manage chronic migraines and cluster headaches — frequently dubbed “suicide headaches” due to their pain levels — for the foreseeable future. This came alongside problems I’ve already been experiencing most of my life with my mental health.

The helplessness you feel when you discover there’s not necessarily an “answer” to your problem can be world-shattering. I was a top student in my class and looking forward to a flourishing future at the time, but to date, I’ve lost jobs and relationships due to my chronic illness.

While I’ve found ways to support myself and manage my condition, sometimes the physical and emotional pain gets so bad, I ache to talk to someone, anyone, with a sympathetic ear.

I miss my former self and I want to rail at the unfairness of it all — but I’ve learned to keep a smile on my face and reply, “I’m fine, thanks!” when anyone asks how I’m doing.

Why? People feel uncomfortable talking about tragedies. Whether you’ve lost your job, your home or someone you love, awkward silence frequently ensues when a touchy topic arises. I don’t blame anyone for this — it’s human nature, but I suppose that I just wish it wasn’t. And there’s evidence suggesting we’d all be a lot happier if we felt we could open up more to each other.

uAt a time when one out of five Americans suffers from some type of mental illness, we avoid the very behavior that could help us process traumatic events — talking. Unless we’re privileged enough to have health insurance (no guarantee in the U.S.) or a trust fund, many of us can’t afford to pay a therapist to help us process our feelings. And when our support system turns away, we often withdraw. We isolate ourselves. We fall deeper into despair, and some, tragically, end their lives when the pain overwhelms them.

Why Do People Avoid Talking About Tragedies?

I performed a Google search for this very phrase, but while I found resources for coping with specific types of tragedies, I didn’t find a single answer to my original query. Researchers don’t even want to talk about why people grow awkward when it comes to discussing tragedies.

However, I believe our reluctance to discuss the most difficult and life-changing experiences stems from four main factors.

  • We don’t know what to say. Oftentimes, we pass on engaging in conversation about tragedies because we simply don’t know what to say. Guess what? That’s okay — the most important thing you can do is listen. Those suffering do well to find an appropriate audience. For example, parents who feel close to their children may want to discuss tragic events in the news together, like Hurricane Dorian. However, parents might do well to discuss only basic facts with children aged 6-11, lest fears spiral out of control. They also can encourage older children to turn off devices to decompress a little from the worlds’ woes.
  • We feel powerless to help. Due to the nature of my experiences, I understand the feelings of powerlessness well. It’s not fun to hear — or to say — there’s nothing I can do. And sometimes, that’s true. For example, if a friend loses their job and their unemployment runs out, they may face imminent homelessness. You may want to help, but if you already struggle to feed your own kids, you may lack the resources. Listen anyway, without judgment. Offer whatever you reasonably can. Most people don’t confide their problems to ask for material help, even if they desperately need it. They simply want someone to care.
  • We fear the obligation. Unfortunately, if we enjoy privilege, we may avoid discussions of other people’s tragedies out of fear we’ll feel obligated to do more than we’re comfortable doing. Remember, you’re under no obligation to reach out a helping hand. You also maintain control over what kind of help you’re willing to offer, if any. For example, when a friend of mine faced hunger due to struggles with alcoholism, I refused to give him money after a certain point, since I had caught him spending a lot of what I’d given him in the past on alcohol. I did, however, order him a pizza whenever I could so he wouldn’t starve.
  • We feel triggered. The #MeToo movement showed the power of validation. However, if you recently lost someone you love, talking to a friend about the loss of her spouse can help you both heal — or, depending on where you are in processing your own emotions, it can leave you feeling worse. It’s okay to set boundaries. You can say, “I know you deserve someone to talk to about this, and at a later time, I promise to listen. But right now, my feelings can’t handle this discussion.”
  • We do wish people well. When I held on to bitterness about my condition, I got defensive when I had a particularly bad day and someone said, “I hope you feel better soon.” I wanted to scream, “Don’t you get it? I’m never going to feel better.” However, I refrained, knowing they meant well. We want those we love to feel happy, healthy and positive. We want to celebrate their successes and wipe their tears of joy, not sorrow. But to foster friendships with that type of depth, we need to be there during the tough times, too.

Can Social Media Make Us Even More Awkward? Or Help Us Process Tragedy?

Some researchers believe social media sites such as Facebook may alter the way we grieve and process tragedy. When an online friend posts about a loss, we respond with expressions of sympathy. Even relative strangers offer well wishes. This could help us develop a more human, and more humane, way of talking frankly about difficult events.

However, some people tie their sense of self-worth to their social media presence. If they don’t receive the level of feedback they were hoping for, they may feel even more isolated.

Be a good online citizen. Offer expressions of support when a friend indicates they are suffering. If you know them well enough, send them a direct message or call them to see if they need to talk. You may be the only one who does.

Talking About Tragedy Need Not Be Difficult

Few of us enjoy discussing tragedies, but if we want to offer meaningful support to those we love when they experience loss, we need to step out of our comfort zones. All it takes is a listening ear to let someone know you care.