The Dead Elephant In the Room

“Praising what is lost / Makes the remembrance dear.”

William Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well

When I was a college speech teacher years ago, I used to tell my students that the top two fears people had were death and public speaking. I was afraid of the former but through years of practice had trained myself not to fear the latter. If I were to add a third fear, I think I’d simply combine the first two. People are afraid of talking about death.

Rob knew this well. It’s why he wrote The Art of Dying. In his hospice and funeral work, Rob saw families and friends who avoided death at all costs — approving invasive medical interventions when death was inevitable, fighting with each other (and even the dying person sometimes!) about what the dying person’s end should look like, avoiding the reality of death altogether. Over and over, he encountered people who wanted to ignore that foreboding elephant in the room. Death sat in the corner waiting, and nobody wanted to talk about it, much less prepare for it.

Photo by Mike on

I don’t think it would surprise Rob at all to know that after death the avoidance is no different. Whether death is in process or a done deal, people still don’t want to talk about it. Many grieving people find that, after the death of their loved one, folks shift to avoiding conversation about the person who died. Some don’t wish to inflict further pain by repeating the person’s name. (Hint: that’s not possible.) Others feel awkward acknowledging the death themselves. Either way, the result, though often unintended, is that the grieving person feels as though his or her loved one has been forgotten. Everyone knows he or she is gone, but nobody wants to say it. The lost loved one becomes the dead elephant in the room.

Though it might feel counterintuitive, one of the kindest things you can do for a grieving person is to ask, “Tell me about your loved one.” By encouraging the sharing of memories, you actually lessen the isolation of grief. You allow the grieving person to talk about the one who fills her thoughts all day, every day. This sharing is actually a vital part of the grief process, and you might find that it helps you edge a little closer to that most difficult conversation topic also. What a gift!

Recently I recorded three podcast episodes that will air next month. I look forward to sharing them with you when they release. Among the joys of those conversations was the joy of talking about Rob. Nothing makes my heart happier than to share stories about our life together. I always love when people ask about him. About his quirks, his writing, his life. Even his death. Talking about Rob brings him back to life, even for just a bit. When people say his name, when they share a story or invite me to do the same, I am reminded that others have not forgotten him either. Shakespeare was right: “Praising what is lost / Makes the remembrance dear.”

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