Good evening, everyone!
I was recently having a conversation with a new friend about different walks of life, the things that impact our individual journeys and how, often times, when difficult topics come up—we do not know how to approach them in conversation. Thus, we shut down.
When we shut down and eliminate the chance of having a challenging conversation, we are only limiting ourselves of future knowledge, opinions and experiences.
I was telling my new friend that, growing up, I never felt like I had much of a “talent.” Sure, I played sports and was decently tall, but I didn’t thrive at an instrument, didn’t dance, was not the top-top of the class, my singing voice wasn’t pitch-perfect, etc.
It was then, though, when I began to tell her that writing ended up being my strength, that she interrupted me and told me that I have a special skill in not backing down from uncomfortable conversations that need to be had.
This newfound realization, plus her pushing me to dive deeper, has led me to this first article where I will attempt to walk each of you through different difficult conversations I have had with other people, what I have learned and how to keep a grip on emotions during the conversations.
Without further ado:
I met my friend Taylor when I was a junior in college. She was living with Maddie, another friend of mine, and we all gathered at my house one morning to drink mimosas before the homecoming football game. We quickly hit it off and by the third time we hung out, her dad was dead.
Yeah. Drastic, I know.
I could have phrased it differently, but to make it make sense—that is, truthfully, what it seemed like happened.
What started out as a harmless, goofy, college-friendship, quickly got real. When Taylor invited me to her house to hangout, solo, after her father’s funeral, I wasn’t necessarily concerned about how to navigate the situation; I just knew she needed a friend.
What came next was some silence, a glass of wine for each of us, me asking how she was doing, and letting her fill the silence.
I learned that her father was only 50-years-old and was living overseas in England when he passed. Years of alcohol abuse had caught up with him quickly, she said, ketoacidosis.
The thing about opening up, and specifically, mourning someone, is that most people want an outlet and do not know how to ask for it. That is the number one thing they teach you in journalism school when it comes to reporting on a tragedy.
“If they refuse the interview, that is one thing—but if all they seem is hesitant, let the awkward silence sink in,” our professors would tell us.
I realize reading it like that sounds a little vicious, but it is so true and has been my saving grace in difficult discussions with friends and family. All you really have to do in order to persevere through a challenging topic is, in my case at least:
- let them know you actually care
- seem interested and ask questions
- sit and be silent
You’ll be surprised how much someone tells you as long as they trust your sincerity.
The last step is sometimes the most challenging because I think our brains are wired to immediately feel like we need to empathize, or say “I understand,” even when, in fact, we do not.
I learned that Taylor and her father were very close growing up and, despite his moving back to England, remained in each other’s lives. She told me stories about her childhood, she spoke about her father’s demons and her fear that they could also live in her, she told me how she was doing and her experience at a European funeral.
We grew closer that night, and have continued too, ever since. I talk a lot more now because we have officially crossed that bridge. That is the point I try to make now—if you want to have an uncomfortable conversation; don’t shy away from it, just let the person going through it do most of the talking at first. Eventually, you will gain enough knowledge and understanding that you can be part of the conversation.
I called Taylor last night to ask her how things for her have changed since more time has passed since her father’s death. I asked how she most appreciates the conversation being navigated when it is with someone new. Here is what she said:
I like to talk about my dad, she said, and I do not want to ever shy away from that. I always really appreciate it when close family and friends send a text on Father’s Day or his birthday or something and say “thinking of you,” or if they call and end up telling me a story about him—I love that.
But, with a stranger it sometimes gets awkward, she said. I grew up predominantly with my mom anyways, so it is second nature for me to just be like ‘oh me and my mom,’ but sometimes people will follow up and say, ‘what about your dad?’ That is when I say ‘oh, my dad died when I was 20.’ And I like to leave it at that, she said.
I think the most disrespectful thing a stranger can do after that is to ask “how did he die?” she said. I don’t know, it doesn’t sit right with me because death is always a difficult thing to process, let alone, the way someone dies. It is just not ‘stranger territory.’
When asked about how she handles the topic with a new friend or a first-date, she said she likes to keep it brief unless she feels she can trust the person and they actually, kind of relate, she said.
You know I have had people who, when I tell them, immediately say they have a parent who suffers from substance abuse too, and whether or not I think they might die from it. That is just not an okay question, she said. I also don’t like it when people pry by guilt-tripping me and saying something like “oh, well I am glad you’re okay now,” or “you are okay now, right?” Those questions do not feel genuine, she said.
I hope this article helped you have a better grasp on how to navigate difficult conversations surrounding loss. I also want to give a shoutout to Taylor—my strong, beautiful friend that I admire dearly!