Supporting others

How to talk about stress, trauma, and loss: Kick the Elephant out of the Room

5 minutes

Instead of avoiding hard topics, become part of a culture that avoids avoidance. Learn how to discuss stress, trauma, loss, & other hard topics with loved ones.

The expression “ignoring the elephant in the room” describes our tendency to avoid talking about huge, impossible-to-overlook situations that might be painful or awkward. Many of us are taught growing up that the polite thing to do is to ignore the elephant in the room and stay on topics we deem “safe” like the weather. Others of us are so sensitive to the needs of others that we worry about saying the wrong thing.

We worry that if we bring up a touchy topic - like a friend’s miscarriage, a family member’s health challenge, a divorce - we’ll remind that person of their pain. But when we avoid these topics, we risk making the people in our lives who are struggling feel under-supported and even invisible.

Instead of avoiding hard topics, we invite you to become part of a culture that avoids avoidance. You can make sure the people you care about feel seen by inviting them to talk about the challenges they face. Providing that opportunity genuinely matters—decades of research show that social support in hard times can improve mental and physical health.

  • Tip #1
    Name the elephant

    Although the elephant in the room can loom large, it can also be surprisingly easy to kick out. Simply naming it usually does the trick. You don’t have to have the perfect words, just a willingness to say, “Hey, I know you’re dealing with x. I’m here if you want to talk.” Delivering that message has real power to show people they’re not alone.

  • How to do it

    “How are you?” can feel like a generic greeting that only offers space for “Good, and you?” as a response. Instead, ask questions that show you’re truly interested in how your loved one feels. Making a small shift to ask, “How are you holding up today?” or “How are you, really?” acknowledges that your loved one is dealing with something out of the ordinary and invites a real conversation about it.

    If you’re not sure what to say or wish you’d spoken up sooner, you can be up-front about that. It can be as simple as saying, “I keep talking about the weather because I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing. But I don’t want to ignore what you’re dealing with.”

    If you aren’t especially comfortable talking about feelings, that’s okay. If your friend, family member, or loved one is on your mind, that’s reason enough to start a conversation and, just like anything else, confronting difficult emotions takes practice and, for most people, gets easier over time.

    • If connecting in person feels overwhelming, you can try a text message, email, or phone call. Those options can help you and your loved one feel more in control of the depth and pace of the conversation.
    • Difficult conversations about trauma or loss often feel easier when people stay busy with another task. If talking face-to-face feels like too much, try talking while walking, cooking, or working on a project together.
    • Don’t expect an immediate response or a response at all. When you bring up a difficult subject, be prepared to postpone the conversation if the other person is busy, distracted, or around someone with whom they’d rather not share details. It’s also possible that someone who’s hurting won’t want to talk about their experience right away, or even at all. If they seem reluctant to open up, don’t push them.

    Even if your loved one doesn’t want to talk about what they’re going through, your attempt to kick the elephant out of the room still matters. It shows you see the challenges they’re facing and that you won’t leave them to face them alone.

  • Tip #2
    Listen and witness, instead of fix

    When someone we care about is in pain, we naturally want to make the pain go away. That desire can lead us to rush into attempts to solve their problems. Unfortunately, some problems can’t be solved—a death, illness, injury, overwhelming stress, or trauma can’t be “fixed.”

    Even when a problem is solvable, plowing ahead with suggestions can leave people feeling unheard. So can attempts to cheer them up, which can make people feel like their problems are being minimized.

  • How to do it
    1. 1
      Instead of offering solutions, ask open-ended questions that help you understand their experience, like “What’s on your mind?” or “What has been hard this week?”
    2. 2
      As you listen, check your understanding by reflecting back the emotions you hear. Try something like, “Juggling medical appointments and parenting sounds really draining” or “It sounds like not knowing what comes next has been scary.”
    3. 3
      Resist the temptation to dive into problem-solving—your job is simply to express empathy and acceptance. Instead of comments that begin with “You should…” try “I know I can’t fix it, but I’m here for you no matter what.”
    4. 4
      Watch out for sayings that minimize pain, like “Everything happens for a reason.” Instead, make space for hard feelings by saying, “That sounds really heartbreaking” or “The pressure you’re under sounds overwhelming.”
    5. 5
      Often, just feeling truly heard is enough to make negative emotions less painful.

Kicking the elephant out of the room starts when you acknowledge the challenges a person is facing instead of pretending everything is normal. You can’t wish the elephant away, but you can say, “I see it and I see your suffering.” Opening the door to the first conversation is the hardest step. Once everyone has admitted there is an elephant in the room it becomes much easier to start coaxing it out the door.

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