Conspiracy of Silence
By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
You can’t judge a book by its cover. So it goes that you can’t really tell how someone who is grieving is doing by looking at how they appear in public. People may look good, but they can still be in deep grief.
The conspiracy of silence runs deep in our general public, but it runs just as deep in the grieving community.
This is how we tend to think about our ability to cope:
If you don’t talk about it
you don’t think about it.
If you don’t think about it,
you won’t remember it.
It seems that this conspiracy of silence assumes that this life changing event that has just rocked your world will slip from your consciousness and you won’t be able to recall what actually happened if people don’t stir your memory. Sounds good, but silence probably works in just the opposite way. The more we don’t talk about it, or at least acknowledge it, the more it festers in us.
Most people in the throes of grief will admit that they are thinking all the time about their loss. Sometimes it’s all they can focus on and at other times, it’s just riding along in the wings ready to become center stage. Meanwhile the unbereaved are tiptoeing around, acting as if nothing has happened or that nothing is missing so as not to remind the grieving person of their plight—as if they need to be reminded!
The bereaved quickly learn who they can talk with, what they can share and what they cannot share. They learn how to wear a mask of composure so they can fit in, and if they are unable or unwilling they refrain from being in public as much as possible lest they are scolded for appearing sullen, or angry, or forlorn.
Sometimes I wonder, do people really think it is easy to move on with one’s life after experiencing a big loss or receiving bad news? Do we not have the staying power or enough compassion or maybe the bravery to imagine ourselves in that same situation? Must we ask the bereaved to pretend it’s not so bad, so we can go on with our lives? It’s no wonder they are resentful.
So the bereaved come to support groups in search of a few listening ears who can tolerate their story, who won’t tell them to “get a grip,” suck it up “, or “get a stiff upper lip”. They come to support groups to share the secrets of grief. One mother needed a safe place to share how sad she was that she never got to throw a birthday party for her first daughter who died 7 years ago, but was going to have a party for her subsequent baby daughter this Saturday. She just needed to be able to say that out loud to others who would just nod in understanding. She knew it was a “little” thing, but she also knew if she shared it, it would not get in the way of Saturday’s event. In another group a woman with stage 4 metastatic cancer talked of how because she “looks okay right now” people don’t ever ask her how she’s doing. She’s afraid they’ll minimize her fears about dying. One of the women spoke of how she couldn’t talk with others about her chemo for fear she might lose her job. And many of the secrets that are shared are about disappointments in family and friends for not having the capacity to just be there as long as it takes.
Life is hard. We don’t need lectures on how to be better. We just need to imagine what it must be like to be in the other person’s shoes. And then imagine what we might want when it’s our turn.