Dare to Share

Author: Stephanie Frogge

Life with grief is challenging enough, but it can become even more challenging when we are called to share our story. While we know talking about our loss, our loved one, the experience of grief, healing and recovery and the details of the death, such as how we learned of it, are necessary and therapeutic elements of coping with loss and creating our new normal, navigating these fine lines can leave us vulnerable to hurtful responses.

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Beware of the Overshare

It’s hard to know when sharing becomes oversharing. That line shifts depending on a myriad of factors, such as the context, listener and your needs. Be gentle with yourself as you look back and identify times when you may have overshared. You’re not “guilty” of oversharing; it’s not a crime. It’s simply the experience of telling your story in a way that turned out to be less helpful than you expected.

We live in a culture of oversharing. Mainstream media has packaged oversharing in the guise of entertainment, and the anonymity of social media shields us from social cues that help us navigate interactions.

Brené Brown, a Texas professor, popular speaker and author, has written much about the subject of transparency, vulnerability and how sharing serves to deepen our relationships. But even as she promotes self-revelation as part of living authentically, she also urges awareness and discernment. In her book, “Daring Greatly,” Brown offers insights to help guide us.

First, there should be an element of mutuality – meaning vulnerability should be reciprocated between those who share their grief with one another. Second, sharing should be with those who have earned the right to bear witness to your pain. That right is earned through nonjudgmental support and sincere inquiry. Those who tell you to “get over it,” that you’re “grieving wrong” or what you “should” do instead have not earned the privilege of your self-disclosure.

Often friends and family surprise us when they are reluctant to provide a listening ear. Someone’s past relationship with us doesn’t always translate to an ability to embrace sharing in a way that’s helpful now. Perhaps this is one reason why we find comfort in our TAPS family. Fellowship with those who have experienced a similar loss more often than not engenders a fundamental awareness that at the right time, everyone will share their loss and recovery. That similar, but never identical, experience knits a web strong enough to hold each of our stories.

The Canary Test

Before the advent of modern ventilation systems, canaries were used to detect noxious gases in coal mines. A canary would stop singing if a dangerous gas were present – leaving enough time for miners to evacuate without harm.

Today computer coders use the term “canary test” to describe the testing of a new code on a small group of unaware users, so in case a problem arises with it, changes can be implemented with minimal impact on end users.

Telling our story, whether to educate, vent or simply recall the memory of our loved one, can make us vulnerable. We run the risk of being misunderstood, diminished or even deeply hurt. For that reason, you may want to implement your own “canary test” to determine the readiness and willingness of those around you as would-be supportive listeners.

One technique is what I call the “Headline Test.” It’s a brief statement, factual in nature, that describes the loss. A headline might be, “I was widowed in 2007 when my Army husband was killed in Iraq.” Another example is, “Toby was our surprise baby and we were very proud when he decided to join the Marines. He died in a training accident when he was just 25.” Headlines give the listener information without much emotional detail. Depending on the listener’s reaction, you may or may not choose to reveal more about the impact of the loss.

According to Joan Hitchens, a writer about grief, there are two kinds of grief stories that need to be shared. The grief story speaks to the circumstances of the death, the notification and the subsequent suffering and pain. The life story is about the relationship with the deceased and memories of that person and the unique role they had in your life. Grief stories and life stories are about impact. They’re profound narratives of how your life has been torn asunder and forever changed as the result of your loved one’s death.

Finally, there’s what I call the rest of the story. For most surviving loved ones, the narrative eventually, after a long period of mourning, takes on a coda. The story no longer ends with the death of our loved one but now encompasses elements of healing, of transformation, of moving forward. While the coda in no way diminishes the impact of this loss – that always remains the central story – it’s no longer the final chapter.

Dare to Share

In spite of the risk, sharing our stories is central to coping and healing. And it may be that you’re in, or were in, a phase of your grief journey where the value is simply in the telling, regardless of the response. That’s perfectly normal too. And if there are people out there still talking about the time a random stranger walked up to them (that would be you) and began sharing…and sharing…and sharing, well, perhaps you were an instrument in their own personal growth.

Telling your story matters both to the speaker and to the listener. In “Grief and Grieving,” Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler write, “Telling the story helps dissipate the pain. Telling your story often and in detail is primal to the grieving process. You must get it out. Grief must be witnessed to be healed. Grief shared is grief abated.”  

From the pen of…
Stephanie Frogge, MTS, has more than 30 years’ experience in the area of trauma response, victim services administration, victim assistance and activism, writing and speaking extensively on victim assistance and trauma issues. She's played several roles in TAPS since 1996 and is currently a staff associate.