How to navigate awkward conversations

May 29, 2024

No one tells us that after the loss of a spouse, conversations can become incredibly awkward. Specifically conversations with non-grief savvy people.

You know, the well-intended people who want to fix you so they can stop worrying about you.

The people who think tough love might be an effective approach.

The ones who tell you that you have do any number of things, like stop wearing your wedding ring, start dating, or leave your person in the past and move on already. Or just come to this party, or start volunteering, or get a dog.

There are the ones who ask intrusive questions.

Or offer age old platitudes.

And the ones who ask the simple question that most widowed people hate the most, which is, “how are you?”

These conversations are tough to navigate so I want to offer some tips to help you. Because while sometimes you can dodge someone in the grocery store, other times you find yourself face to face with a person who doesn’t get it.

First, I want to offer you a sentence that comes in handy in a lot of the situations I just mentioned. I think of it as a conversation stopper, and it can be delivered with kindness. It is: “I don’t expect you to understand what this is like for me. In fact, I’m glad you don’t.”

It’s a polite way of letting the person know that, in this moment, they’re demonstrating a lack of understanding. Because they simply don’t get it. Which is understandable because there was a time when all of us simply didn’t get it. The only way to get it, is to experience it. And we don’t want that for them.

And even if the person has had their own loss, they don’t know YOUR loss. Every person is unique, every marriage is unique, and every loss is unique.

This sentence works in a lot of situations - when someone is trying to fix you, tell you what you should be doing, and offering platitudes that aren’t helpful. You can respond with, “I don’t expect you to understand what this is like for me.”

It’s ironic that in the most difficult chapter of life, we have to let people be wrong about us. There’s so little energy, and if we spend it trying to explain ourselves to people who simply don’t get it and can’t get it, then the energy is gone. Letting them misunderstand you is sometimes the best option. It’s not easy to do, but it may be the best way to save your limited energy for more important tasks.

Now, intrusive questions.

This is something my late husband taught me. When someone asks a question that feels intrusive, respond with, “Why do you ask?” This does two important things. It buys  time to think about how you want to handle it. And second, it makes them take ownership of their own question.  

Then, you may choose to respond with, “I’m not ready to talk about that.” Or “I’m not up for discussing that with you.”

Another option is to offer no response whatsoever. My uncle was recently asked an intrusive question and he simply stared at the person, allowed for a long, awkward silence, until she changed the subject. Silence may be the best solution.

Now, perhaps the most awkward of all is also the most simple and common question, “How are you?” Sometimes the person genuinely wants to know the answer. Sometimes they don’t.

You wonder if you should be honest, or keep it to a simple response. And if you’re honest, where does the conversation go from there? And how do you even answer that question when, since your loss, you’ve been on the roller coaster of emotions? Here are some simple responses that may help you:

I’m doing my best and that looks different every day. Or…..

I’m doing the best I can in the most difficult situation I’ve ever faced.

It may help to reply with a time stamp, such as, Well, today is okay so far. Or, today has been rough for me. Or, it’s not been an easy morning. Or, in this minute, I feel sad.

Finally, what do you say when you’re invited to a party and you don’t have any energy or desire to go? You can say, “Thank you for thinking of me. I won’t be able to make it, but please ask me again. I would appreciate being invited in the future.”

Or you’re not sure if you’ll be able to go? You can say, “Every day is different and I can’t predict how that day will go. I’ll do my best to attend, but I can’t make any promises.”

Grieving is learning. Death changed you, too, so you’re learning yourself. Your brain is learning your new, unwanted reality. You’re learning how to navigate conversations that you’d probably rather avoid.

Let yourself learn. Without judgement. Without self-criticism. It’s this hard to be without your person. Being kind to yourself is the best way forward.

And if you need help, Life Reconstructed is my coaching program exclusively for widowed people. Click below to learn more. 

Learn more about Life Reconstructed.

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