Kicking the Elephant Out of the Room
IN COLLEGE, most people have a roommate or two. Some have three or four. Dave had ten. After graduation, the roommates scattered across the country, seeing one another only on special occasions. In the spring of 2014, we all got together for their twenty-fifth college reunion. The families had so much fun that we decided to spend the Fourth of July together the next year.
Dave passed away two months before the trip.
I thought about skipping it. The prospect of spending the weekend with Dave’s roommates without Dave seemed overwhelmingly hard. But I was grasping to hang on to the life we had together, and canceling felt like giving up another piece of him. So I went, hoping that it would be comforting to be with his close friends, who were also grieving.
Most of the trip was a blur, but on the last day, I sat down for breakfast with several of the roommates, including Jeff King, who had been diagnosed years earlier with multiple sclerosis. Dave and I had discussed Jeff’s illness many times with each other, but that morning I realized that I had never actually spoken with Jeff about it.
“Jeff,” I said, “how are you? I mean, really, how are you? How are you feeling? Are you scared?”
Jeff looked up in surprise and paused for a long few moments. With tears in his eyes, he said, “Thank you. Thank you for asking.” And then he talked. He talked about his diagnosis and how he hated that he had to stop practicing medicine. How his continued deterioration was hard on his children. How he was worried about his future. How relieved he felt being able to talk about it with me and the others at the table that morning. When breakfast was over, he hugged me tight.
In the early weeks after Dave died, I was shocked when I’d see friends who did not ask how I was doing. The first time it happened, I thought I was dealing with a non-question-asking friend. We all have some of these, as blogger Tim Urban describes them: “You’ll quit your job. You’ll fall in love. You’ll catch your new love cheating on you and murder them both in an act of incredible passion. And it doesn’t matter, because none of it will be discussed with The Non-Question-Asking Friend, who never, ever, ever asks you anything about your life.” Sometimes these friends are self-absorbed. Sometimes they’re just uncomfortable having intimate conversations.
I couldn’t understand when friends didn’t ask me how I was. I felt invisible, as if I were standing in front of them but they couldn’t see me. When someone shows up with a cast, we immediately inquire, “What happened?” If your ankle gets shattered, people ask to hear the story. If your life gets shattered, they don’t.
People continually avoided the subject. I went to a close friend’s house for dinner, and she and her husband made small talk the entire time. I listened mystified, keeping my thoughts to myself. You’re right, the Warriors are totally crushing it! And you know who really loved that team? Dave. I got emails from friends asking me to fly to their cities to speak at their events without acknowledging that travel might be more difficult for me now. Oh, it’s just an overnight? Sure, I’ll see if Dave can come back to life and put the kids to bed. I ran into friends at local parks who talked about the weather. Yes! The weather has been weird with all this rain and death.
It wasn’t until breakfast with Jeff that I realized I was sometimes the friend who avoided painful conversations. I had failed to ask him directly about his health not because I didn’t care, but because I was worried about upsetting him. Losing Dave taught me how ludicrous that was. It wasn’t possible for me to remind Jeff that he was living with MS. He was aware of that every minute of every day.
Even people who have endured the worst suffering often want to talk about it. Merle Saferstein is one of my mom’s closest friends and the former education director at the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center in South Florida. She has worked with more than five hundred survivors and remembers only one who declined to open up. “In my experience, survivors want the opportunity to teach and not be shunned because they went through something unknowable,” Merle said. Still, people hesitate to ask questions out of concern that probing will dredge up trauma. To encourage discussion, Merle ran programs that brought survivors together with high school and college students. She notes that when students are offered the chance, questions tumble out. “I’ve heard them inquire, ‘What did you eat in the concentration camp? Did you still believe in God?’ Young girls will often ask, ‘Did you get your period? What did you do when you did?’ These aren’t personal questions. They are human questions,” Merle told me.
Avoiding feelings isn’t the same as protecting feelings. Merle recalled going with a young cousin of hers to visit an elderly couple who had clay handprints of two children hanging on their wall. The couple spoke of only one daughter. Merle’s young cousin had been told not to mention their daughter who died because it would make the couple sad. Merle hadn’t heard this warning, so she asked about the second set of prints. While the cousin looked aghast, the couple spoke warmly and at length about their daughter. “They wanted her to be remembered,” Merle said.
Parents who have suffered the worst loss imaginable often share this sentiment. Author Mitch Carmody said after his nine-year-old son Kelly died from a brain tumor, “Our child dies a second time when no one speaks their name.” This is why the Compassionate Friends, one of the largest bereavement organizations in the United States, encourages families to speak openly and frequently about the children they have lost.
Avoiding upsetting topics is so common that the practice even has a name. Decades ago, psychologists coined the term “mum effect” for when people avoid sharing bad news. Doctors hold back on telling patients that their prognosis is bleak. Managers wait too long to break the news that people are being fired. My colleague Maxine Williams, head of diversity at Facebook, told me that she believes many people succumb to the mum effect around race. “Even after an unarmed black person is killed for reaching over to show a cop his license, white people who have seen the news, who live in these communities, and who sit at the desk next to us at work will often say nothing,” Maxine said. “For the victim of racism, like the victim of loss, the silence is crippling. The two things we want to know when we’re in pain are that we’re not crazy to feel the way we do and that we have support. Acting like nothing significant is happening to people who look like us denies us all of that.”
By staying silent, we often isolate family, friends, and coworkers. Even under ordinary circumstances, being alone with your thoughts can be uncomfortable. In one experiment, a quarter of women and two-thirds of men chose to give themselves painful electric shocks rather than sit in solitude for fifteen minutes. Silence can increase suffering. I only felt comfortable bringing up Dave with a small group of family and friends. Some of my other friends and coworkers made it easy for me to open up; psychologists literally call them “openers.” Unlike non-question-asking friends, openers ask a lot of questions and listen to the answers without judging. They enjoy learning about and feeling connected to others. Openers can make a big difference in times of crisis, especially for those who are normally reticent.
I never would’ve expected that I’d have trouble sharing. With my close friends, I’m always the one who wants to talk about everything. Do you like him? Is he a good kisser? (Not always in that order.) At work, I constantly ask for feedback—to the point that I get feedback that I ask for too much feedback. But in grief, I didn’t want to dump my problems on others and was unable to mention Dave unless people really pressed.
Openers are not always our closest friends. People who have faced adversity tend to express more compassion toward others who are suffering. Writer Anna Quindlen observes that grief is discussed among “those of us who recognize in one another a kindred chasm deep in the center of who we are.” Military veterans, rape victims, and parents whose children have died all report that the most helpful support usually comes from those who have suffered similar losses. When Holocaust survivors came to the United States, Merle told me, “they felt very isolated, so they started bonding with each other. That’s why the survivor clubs formed. The only people who really understood were the people who had been through those experiences.”
I found this to be true. Colin Summers, a friend from Los Angeles, approached me at Dave’s funeral. Instead of saying, “I’m sorry for your loss,” the first thing out of his mouth was, “My dad died when I was four.” “Oh, good,” I blurted in response. Then I quickly added, “I mean, not good. It’s just that you turned out great and that gives me hope for my children.” I was embarrassed, but he gave me a hug and said, “I knew what you meant and I promise your kids are stronger than you know.” It wasn’t my smoothest social interaction, but it was one of the only moments on that horrible day that made me feel a tiny bit better.
I had become a member of a club that no one wants to belong to—a club that I did not even know existed before I joined involuntarily. Nine days after Dave died, I went to my daughter’s soccer game and noticed her friend’s seventy-year-old grandmother, Jo Shepherd, sitting next to an empty chair. Decades before, Jo had also been left to raise two small children when her husband died, and I instinctively knew that chair was for me. I sat down, and before we’d said ten words to each other I felt completely understood. At a Facebook partner breakfast, a client I’d never met before told me that he had just lost his brother. We wound up sitting in the corner and crying together.
Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn’t know what to say to me or my kids. Their discomfort being around us was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room went unacknowledged, it started acting up, trampling over my relationships. If friends didn’t ask how I was doing, did that mean they didn’t care? Did they not see the giant muddy footprints and piles of manure?
Adam was certain people wanted to talk about it but they didn’t know how. I was less sure. Friends were asking, “How are you?” but I took this as more of a standard greeting than a genuine question. I wanted to scream back, “My husband just died, how do you think I am?” I didn’t know how to respond to pleasantries. Aside from that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?
All over the world, there is cultural pressure to conceal negative emotions. In China and Japan, the ideal emotional state is calm and composed. In the United States, we like excitement (OMG!) and enthusiasm (LOL!). As psychologist David Caruso observes, “American culture demands that the answer to the question ‘How are you?’ is not just ‘Good.’…We need to be ‘Awesome.’ ” Caruso adds, “There’s this relentless drive to mask the expression of our true underlying feelings.” Admitting that you’re having a rough time is “almost inappropriate.”
Anna Quindlen puts it more poetically. “Grief,” she writes, is “a whisper in the world and a clamor within. More than sex, more than faith, even more than its usher death, grief is unspoken, publicly ignored except for those moments at the funeral that are over too quickly.”
The elephant followed me to the office too. I’ve always been friendly with my colleagues, especially at Facebook, where our company mission is to make the world more open and connected. Our culture reflects this: all of us sit at open desks where anyone can walk up and talk to anyone else. Conversations, including personal ones, are frequent and public.
At first, going back to work provided a bit of a sense of normalcy. Then I quickly discovered that it wasn’t business as usual. I have long encouraged people to bring their whole selves to work, but now my “whole self” was just so freaking sad. As hard as it was to bring up Dave with friends, it seemed even more inappropriate at work. So I did not. And they did not. Most of my interactions felt cold, distant, stilted. Walking around the Facebook campus, I started to feel like a ghost, somehow frightening and invisible at the same time. In the moments when I couldn’t take it, I sought refuge with Mark in his conference room. I told him I was worried that my personal connections with our coworkers were slipping away. He understood my fear but insisted that I was misreading their reactions. He said they wanted to stay close to me but they did not know what to say.
The deep loneliness of my loss was compounded by so many distancing daily interactions that I started to feel worse and worse. I thought about carrying around a stuffed elephant but I wasn’t sure that anyone would get the hint. I knew that people were doing their best; those who said nothing were trying not to bring on more pain, and those who said the wrong thing were trying to comfort. I saw myself in many of these attempts—they were doing exactly what I had done when I was on the other side. With the best of intentions, if friends were in pain, I had tried to offer optimism and reassurance to minimize their fears. Yep, I see a gray animal in the room, but that’s no elephant—looks more like a mouse. I now realize that it was just wishful thinking on my part that could make people feel even less understood.
The traditional Jewish period of mourning for a spouse lasts thirty days. I was nearing the end of the month when I thought about expressing how I felt on Facebook. I poured my emotions into a post but didn’t think I’d ever share it—it was too personal, too raw, too revealing. Finally, I decided it was unlikely to make things worse and maybe it would make them a bit better. Early the next morning before I could change my mind, I hit “post.”
My message began by describing the void and how easy it was to get sucked in. I said that for the first time ever, I understood the power of the prayer “Let me not die while I am still alive.” Grasping for a lifeline, I wrote about how I wanted to choose meaning over emptiness. I thanked my family and friends who had helped me through those incomprehensible first weeks. Then I did what proved so difficult to do with friends and colleagues face-to-face: I described how a casual greeting like “How are you?” hurt because it didn’t acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary had happened. I pointed out that if people instead asked “How are you today?” it showed that they were aware that I was struggling to get through each day.
The impact of my post was immediate. Friends, neighbors, and colleagues started talking about the elephant. Emails poured in with messages like “I know it must be really hard. I’ve been thinking about you and your kids.”
The responses from strangers around the world made me feel less isolated too. A new mother wrote from a hospital neonatal intensive care unit that she’d lost one of her newborn twins and sought the strength to give the surviving twin an amazing life. A young man shared his wedding photo the day before what would have been his third anniversary. His late wife had changed his world, and he promised that in her memory he would help women succeed in his male-dominated field. Strangers comforted each other. To the mother who lost her newborn twin, a woman who’d experienced the same thing offered solace. To the young widower, dozens of people wrote messages of encouragement. And in many cases, friends commented to friends that they had not known about their losses and wanted to be there to support them. Some offered compassion, others shared personal stories, but the message was clear: as one man wrote, even though Option A was gone for so many of us, we were not alone.
Not everyone feels comfortable talking openly about personal tragedy. We all make our own choices about when and where and if we want to express our feelings. Still, there’s powerful evidence that opening up about traumatic events can improve mental and physical health. Speaking to a friend or family member often helps people understand their own emotions and feel understood.
After my post, one welcome change was that people began asking, “How are you today?” which became a shorthand way to express empathy. That question also helped me realize that my all-encompassing grief might not be permanent. Adam pointed out that I would often answer “How are you?” with “Fine,” and that didn’t encourage people to ask further questions. He said if I wanted others to be more open with me, I needed to be more open with them. I started responding more frankly. “I’m not fine, and it’s nice to be able to be honest about that with you.” I learned that even small things could let people know that I needed help; when they hugged me hello, if I hugged them just a bit tighter, they understood that I was not okay.
With a few of my non-question-asking friends, I addressed our situation directly. I gathered my courage and told them, usually through tears, that when they didn’t ask, I sometimes felt like they didn’t care. I was grateful that they all reacted with kindness, saying they appreciated my speaking up—and they started asking more questions. Just like I had with Dave’s college roommate Jeff, they had been inquiring, “How are you?” with a genuine desire to connect, but I hadn’t given a true response and they didn’t feel comfortable pushing for one.
I finally figured out that since the elephant was following me around, I could take the first step in acknowledging its existence. At work, I told my closest colleagues that they could ask me questions—any questions—and they could talk about how they felt too. One colleague said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Another admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should knock on the door. Once I told her that I wanted to talk to her, she finally rang the doorbell and came inside. I was happy to see her…and not just because she brought Starbucks.
There were times I wanted to avoid real conversations: In front of my son and daughter. Right before a meeting. What worked best for me was when people said, “I’m here if you ever want to talk. Like now. Or later. Or in the middle of the night. Whatever would help you.” Instead of making assumptions about whether or not someone wants to talk, it’s best to offer an opening and see if they take it.
Death is not the only kind of adversity that summons the elephant. Anything that reminds us of the possibility of loss can leave us at a loss for words. Financial difficulties. Divorce. Unemployment. Rape. Addiction. Incarceration. Illness. Adam told me that ten years ago, the day before he and his wife Allison were supposed to move to England for a fellowship, she had a miscarriage. They considered canceling their plans but thought that a change of scenery might be a good way to heal. Because of the distance and their fear of burdening others, they didn’t tell friends and family about the miscarriage—or the second one that followed. It was then that Allison, who has a background in psychiatry, taught Adam that when something terrible happens, it can be important to consider how things could be worse. They remembered that a close friend had seven miscarriages before having healthy children. They thought about how losses later in pregnancy can be far more devastating. When they returned home, the pain was less raw and it was easier to talk about. Allison started sharing her experiences with her friends and found out that several of them had suffered the same loss but never said a word either.
Speaking up can strengthen social bonds, but in some cases it’s risky. Having been one of the few Filipinos on his college campus, Anthony Ocampo described to us how he felt “the pressure of the American dream—to be the representative of the people in our community.” He was also carrying an additional weight that he kept to himself: “For the hard-core Catholic Filipino immigrants that my parents were, having a gay son was never part of the plan.” Anthony became a sociology professor and studied the challenges of coming out in immigrant families. He conducted interviews and learned about a Filipino teenager who drank from a cup and then watched his mother “throw it away because she thought it was dirty.” When another immigrant son came out to his family, they drove him to Mexico and “took away his passport so he could learn to be a man.”
Anthony saw the paradox of immigrant parents knowing the pain of exclusion yet inflicting that same pain on their LGBTQ children. When Anthony finally told his parents he was gay, he also shared with them the research he’d done on the damage caused when families turn away from their own. “The children look for acceptance in drugs, alcohol, and unsafe sex,” he told them. “They remember it for years, and it affects pretty much every aspect of their lives.” With Anthony’s thoughtful and patient encouragement, his parents were able to accept him. Now they include Anthony’s partner in their holiday celebrations. Breaking the silence brought them closer together.
Cancer is another forbidden or “whisper” topic. I read about a writer named Emily McDowell who said the worst part of being diagnosed with lymphoma wasn’t feeling sick from chemo or losing her hair. “It was the loneliness and isolation I felt when many of my close friends and family members disappeared because they didn’t know what to say, or said the absolute wrong thing without realizing it.” In response, Emily created “empathy cards.” I love them all but these two are my favorites, making me want to laugh and cry simultaneously.
When I first read Emily’s cards, I thought back to a friend with late-stage cancer telling me that for him the worst thing people could say was, “It’s going to be okay.” He said the terrified voice in his head would wonder, How do you know it is going to be okay? Don’t you understand that I might die? I remembered the year before Dave died when a friend of mine was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, I thought the best way to offer comfort was to assure her, “You’ll be okay. I just know it.” Then I dropped the subject for weeks, thinking she would raise it again if she wanted to.
I meant well then, but I know better now. Recently, a work colleague was diagnosed with cancer and I handled it differently. I told her, “I know you don’t know yet what will happen—and neither do I. But you won’t go through this alone. I will be there with you every step of the way.” By saying this, I acknowledged that she was in a stressful and scary situation. I then continued to check in with her regularly.
Sometimes, despite the best intentions, we still get it wrong. ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer had just returned to work after her husband Mike Nichols died. Diane was riding up an escalator when a colleague on the way down shouted out, “Sorry for your loss!” On the plus side, they were moving in opposite directions so she didn’t have to respond.
“When you’re faced with tragedy, you usually find that you’re no longer surrounded by people—you’re surrounded by platitudes. So what do we offer instead of ‘everything happens for a reason’?” asks writer Tim Lawrence. He suggests that “the most powerful thing you can do is acknowledge. To literally say the words: I acknowledge your pain. I’m here with you.”
Until we acknowledge it, the elephant is always there. By ignoring it, those who are grieving isolate themselves and those who could offer comfort create distance instead. Both sides need to reach out. Speaking with empathy and honesty is a good place to start. You can’t wish the elephant away, but you can say, “I see it. I see you’re suffering. And I care about you.” Ideally not shouted from an escalator.