Why are we so uncomfortable talking about death?

Living alone and being single, I often find myself in situations where I am meeting people for the first time. I belong to walking groups, a writing group, a women’s business group and a dining club, so it is common for me to find myself facing the normal ‘getting to know you’ type questions that people ask when you first meet.

I don’t walk up to people and say  ‘Hi, I’m Anne and my 23 year old son died 7 years ago, and by the way he took his own life’. However, the fact I do not have a living child often naturally comes into conversations, as at my time of life most people will tell you about their children and how much they delight in their grandchildren. I refuse to NOT mention my son just to avoid the awkward silences that often follow, and I have just got used to answering the question about children by saying that ‘yes, I do have a son, but unfortunately he died when he was 23, 7 years ago’. I don’t always volunteer the suicide bit unless it feels relevant.

Some people will react by saying ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘how sad’ either of which is perfectly acceptable and is appreciated. Just a small acknowledgement of what I have just courageously shared is all I really need.

However I often find myself amazed at the number of people who just say nothing in response. I mean – nothing! The reason I was prompted to write this blog is because this happened to me recently twice in the space of a week and it has been niggling away at me.

The first time was last Saturday when I went to a new writing group and met 3 women for the first time. We all introduced ourselves and I told them I started writing when I started a blog, and then went onto to do a journalism degree. When someone asked what my blog is about, I told them that tragically my son had taken his own life 7 years ago and I started this blog to write about my experience to help others and as therapy. They listened and I saw the now familiar ‘omg she just mentioned a dead son’ look of blind panic, then they just moved on to the next person and talked about something else.

The second time I was out for a meal and found myself on a table with 3 ladies, 2 of which I had not met before. This time there weren’t any questions or introductions but the conversation turned to holidays and dogs and I mentioned I go to the Scillies every year, then added I go there on the anniversary of when I lost my son as it helps me have a time of quiet reflection. Again conversation just flowed on with no acknowledgement of what I had just shared.

Sometimes when this happens I feel like interrupting and saying ‘excuse me – did you just hear me say that my son died?’, but of course I don’t. I don’t blame them, I just think as a society we are really crap about talking about death, and especially suicide.

It sometimes feels as if you have mentioned something really inappropriate, but death is part of life. Who knows how I would react if I hadn’t experienced the loss of a child, I am not blaming or judging but just really want people to know how it feels when you share something so personal and emotional and there is no response because the person listening has been blindsided and just doesn’t know what to say in that moment.

I’m not sure why it bothers me.  What do I want? I don’t want pity, I don’t want sympathy, I don’t want people to cry and weep and say how awful it is. I think I just want an acknowledgement that they have heard what I have just shared. Nothing more, nothing less.

It would also be comforting if they would ask me about him. ‘Oh how sad, tell me about him, what was his name, what was he like, you must miss him?’

I want to talk about my dead son as much as you want to talk about your living, breathing children and your grandchildren. I don’t want to dwell on his death but I want to share funny stories and recount happy times, why shouldn’t I? I know it can make people feel uncomfortable but I think the more we can make an effort to feel more at ease when talking about death and the deceased, sadness and tragedy, the more we can help each other.

So the next time you meet someone and they tell you about a deceased child, spouse, parent, friend, sibling, just pause and say a few words of acknowledgement so that person can feel comforted and supported. It is a cliché but it is true it’s better to risk saying the wrong thing than saying nothing.


This entry was posted in bereavement, Grief, Loss, suicide. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Why are we so uncomfortable talking about death?

  1. Bee Leeson says:

    Anne, i think this is a post many will resonate with and I certainly do.
    I understand all too well what you mean.
    I am fortunate to have a daughter and two grandsons but i still need some recognition that my son lived.
    I need to talk of him if only occasionally and not have him swiped away as though he never existed because others can’t deal with or speak of death especially suicide loss.
    Sadly we live in a society where death is an uncomfortable subject and people are at a loss for what to say.
    As for suicide that is still a no go topic except for people who have been affected by it or at least that’s my opinion.
    It’s ironic that even those who know us well steer away from mentioning dead children, it’s almost as those they worry that they’ll upset us.
    They don’t understand that we can’t be any more upset and we’ve never forgotten.
    Only those who’ve lost a child understand the simple pleasure from hearing their name mentioned or recalling a happy memory.
    I don’t think I was ever frightened to speak of death but sometimes I struggle to remember exactly how I felt prior to experiencing this loss myself.
    Hopefully I wasn’t one of the people who would gloss over it rather than speak of it.
    I certainly know better now.
    Sending special thoughts to you and Toby.

  2. As you say Anne, people are blindsided and don’t know what to say. I guess they are probably the people who have not experienced the trauma of the death of their child. I can only think they are bound in some terror of it touching them or their lives.

    As for suicide, well there is still so much stigma attached to mental health issues, I think people probably have opinions but they’re possibly not informed opinions and I would rather not hear them.
    May be I am being harsh.

    I am sorry it has been difficult for you of late, I don’t suppose we will every get used to this new way of being. You are so much further on your journey without Toby being with you than I am without Luke (coming up 2 and a half years) and your blog has been a great comfort to me so thank you for still sharing.

  3. Jackie Stewart says:

    Anne, I have followed your blog since 2012, I don’t even recall how I came across finding you, but you were my support, and lifesaver, you understood… You write so eloquently.

    I still find it difficult when meeting new people, to respond to questions in relation to children etc. just a couple of weeks ago, I was watching a bowling match, and was in conversation with a lovely lady, who asked just that question.. I responded by saying we have a son living near by, and that our daughter had passed away six years ago. Emma was 30… I left it at that..I am thinking she may have felt uncomfortable as some time later she asked if I minded talking to her about her passing, in which I became a blubbering mess. This particular lady Is a nurse, she embraced me, and we talked.and talked, about suicide. Luckily I didn’t find her to be intrusive, she comforted me.. I won’t see her ever again, I cannot even recall her name, she actually lives some hours away, there is no need..

    Thank you for all you write, I totally relate. Our children are an important part of our existence. They must never be forgotten.

    • annwae says:

      Bless you, thank you for your kind words. What a lovely lady who tuned in and comforted you. I guess lots of people want to do that but feel uncomfortable. Sending big hugs x

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