When No One Understands: Communication & Grief


Communication. It is the foundation of every relationship and every interaction we have – and we all know it. Good communication leads to connection, along with a better understanding of ourselves and each other. Bad communication can result in anger, hurt feelings, misunderstandings and fractured relationships. Comparing the two it seems that we would all choose to have good and clear communication with those we are closest to, but it doesn’t often work out that way.

Communication can be hard even when life is good.

Sharing how we feel makes us feel vulnerable. We may worry about hurting someone’s feelings, making them angry, or coloring their perception of us. Perhaps we assume that words aren’t even needed. That those in our inner circle already know what we need, think, and feel.

So imagine how hard this can be in life after significant loss. In the support groups I facilitate we spend a lot of time (and I mean A LOT of time!) talking about “other people”. Close and distant family, friends, coworkers…all of whom seem to make a griever’s life more challenging at one point or another. And mostly it comes down to a lack of open and honest communication about life, death, grief, and loss.

At some point through this grief journey you have probably felt or thought the phrase I so often hear…”no one understands”. But why is it so hard for people to be supportive when we need them most? And what options are there to improve this very troubling consequence of loss?

A few years ago, I wrote about how terrifying your grief is to those around you. There I explored the idea that it’s not that the people in your life don’t want to help or understand. They just don’t know how. It could be because of their own background or lack of experience with loss. Or perhaps it’s because they assume the passage of time will be enough to give you the help and healing you need.

However, understanding the “why” is only the beginning. In order to find some peace in our relationships after loss, it really comes down to two options.

Improving communication or finding forgiveness.

That’s it. I don’t want to oversimplify it but in all my time supporting those who are grieving, I’ve discovered there really are only two things you can do with those who don’t understand and who don’t get what it’s like to be in your shoes.

So let’s start with improving communication. This is one of my favorite topics. It’s something I promote in both my personal and professional life, and probably the reason that I started my career wanting to be a marriage counselor. Communication. As I said before it’s at the cornerstone of every connection we have, and yet there is nothing we seem to falter at more as humans than good, clear, consistent communication.

But why should it be left to you as the griever to have to address the elephant in the room, and what would you even say?

Start by telling someone, anyone, how hard this is for you.

And when I say anyone, I mean anyone. Of course ideally we’d love for our confidants in grief to be our sibling or oldest friend. But that is rarely the case. Getting through grief means building a support system, and often it may not be with those you’d expect. When feeling especially lost and lonely in life after loss, identify someone who you think would be open to a conversation, and then start it.

Start by telling them that you don’t need them to fix this for you. A lot of people are scared off by grieving people because of feelings of their own inadequacies. From their perspective they may think, “what can I possibly offer to make this better?” What they don’t understand is that you don’t need their suggestions, advice, or problem solving. You only need their ear, their presence, and a safe place to share without feeling judged.

Next, let them know that you feel hopeful, and that you recognize the changing nature of grief, and that you won’t feel this way forever. And if you don’t already know that yourself, begin to understand it. We need hope from other people, and they need it from us. Some people will be better able to support us if they think we haven’t given up. If you can’t bring yourself to a place of hope just yet, let your friend or family member know that you’re trying and that you truly are doing the best you can to get there.

Then, let it roll.

Be vulnerable. Be honest. You don’t have to share everything but you don’t have to hold back either. The person you’re speaking to just may not understand your experience, what this is like, or what you’re going through. So be patient, explain the symptoms and secondary losses, and help them understand that there is no timeline for grief with a loss like yours.

And if you’ve tried this before? Try again. Sometimes we need to say things more than once. In almost everything in life we need repeated interaction with information until we fully comprehend it, yet we often give the people in our lives only one shot to understand us. If we tell them once and they’re not responsive or demonstrating an increased compassion after that first time, we’re not very likely to try again. But if we raised our children that way? What if we told them only once in their lives to say please and thank you…would that be enough? We are patient and understand repetition in other parts of our lives but we are reticent to repeat ourselves when it comes to our own feelings. And in the end, we’re the ones who suffer because of it.

So give it a try. Write it out first if necessary. Start small and think of any attempt at communication as a beginning. Don’t expect immediate results, and be patient with the person who you’re asking to listen. We quickly become experts in grief, but the people around us, especially those who have not been directly impacted, may just need a little time to catch up.

And if communication doesn’t work?

Forgive. Like I said before, I don’t want to oversimplify this. After all, there is just nothing about grief and loss that could ever be described as simple. But as we’re feeling so frustrated with the people around us, isn’t it sort of liberating to realize that with all the confusion and decision making and everything else we’re going through, when it comes to this there are only two things to do?

If you can’t or don’t want to communicate or if you have (truly) tried and tried and tried, and nothing seems to work to help those around you understand, then forgive them. Forgive them for the things that they don’t understand. Realize that in most cases it’s because they CAN’T. They don’t know your life, your thoughts or your feelings. They don’t know how much you loved the person you lost or how much they mattered to you. And don’t assume that anyone should know any of these things, because they don’t, or can’t.

Your friend who lost her mom should be a great support after you’ve lost your mom, right? Not necessarily. Maybe they had a totally different relationship. Maybe they spoke or saw each other more or less frequently. Perhaps their relationship was more or less complicated. Even the loss itself and whether it was sudden or following a long term illness can make a difference. Your childhood, and personal experiences since have all served to shape who you are now and how you cope with loss. Even your current situation- whether you’re married or have kids or have a job or have other losses or stresses is impacting your grief in a way that it hasn’t for anyone else you know. There are just too many variables. So for the person who can’t or won’t understand (even when you think they should!) forgive them.

In the end, forgiveness is the gift you give yourself and no one will benefit from it more than you.

It really is true. We too often see forgiveness as condoning what seems like bad behavior, but is that really true? If we’ve tried to communicate and felt unsuccessful, what other choice do we have? Sure, anger is an option. Resentment. Building a mistrust or disconnect with people in general. But we already know where that would get us.

So forgive those who don’t understand. In grief we already lose so much, try not to lose the well-intentioned people as well. There is growth to be had in grief and skills to be learned. And there are few things more beneficial in the long term than working on better communication with those we love, and digging deep to find forgiveness for the ways we are all so very different.


And remember, when it feels like all else has failed…communicate with those who understand. You’ll find them here:

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