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The Elephant in the Room: Talking About Loss and Hardship

2 minutes, 1 second

We often have a hard time talking about adversity—but staying silent can make our loved ones feel even more isolated after loss or hardship. This video offers simple ways to speak with empathy and honesty when our friends are suffering.

ADAM: Around the world, people have a really hard time talking about adversity. You know, somebody has lost a spouse, or has been diagnosed with cancer. And nobody says a word about it. It’s like there’s an elephant in the room.

Option B The Elephant in the Room: Talking about loss and hardship with Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant Authors of Option B

SHERYL: When I saw someone two weeks after Dave died, or even two months, and they didn’t acknowledge it at all, I felt totally invisible. I felt like they didn’t get it at all, and I felt really alone. And I know that just like I had done, when I was on the other side, they just didn’t know what to say, so they didn’t say anything at all.

ADAM: Psychologists years ago came up with a term for this. They called it the Mum Effect.

The Mum Effect: People avoid discussing upsetting topics

ADAM: Knowing that nobody likes to pass along bad news. Some people are afraid that, you know, the messenger will be shot.

ADAM: But in other cases, you know, it’s just as likely that people don’t want to remind others of something painful. One way that people are able to overcome the Mum Effect is to open up. To say, hey, you know, this is what I’m going through.

Opening up helps us overcome isolation

SHERYL: I felt increasingly alone and increasingly isolated. So I started writing what I would say, if I would say something to people, to try to acknowledge the elephant. And I wrote this, in what would be a Facebook post. I wrote in the post: “Don’t ask me how I am.” “How are you?” feels really insensitive, even though it’s said with the best of intentions. “How are you?” Okay, my husband just died, how am I? Really? Instead say, “How are you today?” “How are you today” is a shorthand way of saying, “I know you’re suffering.”

Acknowledging suffering is the first step to speaking with empathy and honesty.

SHERYL: I’m acknowledging your pain, but I want to know how you’re getting through it today. And so, people everywhere I went started asking me, “How are you today?” It became a really shorthand way of expressing empathy that has really helped me.