Conversation Starters and Conversation Enders

January 16, 2023

By Ken Barringer

A conversation I’ve had with grievers over the years has been they’ve been surprised that some of the people who they felt would really show up for them as emotional support have not. They have equally been surprised by people who have showed up. The answers as to why can be as varied as those who have reported it and there are too many to articulate here. For purposes of this blog let’s hone in on conversation starters and conversation enders. What I educate grievers about is that feedback they do get often has nothing to do with them. The words of others are usually what they can tolerate, handle, expect or are some type of aspiration for you. While this may be well intended it can be off-line and grievers feel like their people don’t get them, want to get them or aren’t available.


To this end the kind of questions and comments that elicit conversation are generally more open ended and vague: "I don’t know what this is like for you, can you share it with me?” Compare this to, “I know how you feel” (You don’t and this is a conversation ender).


“Can you share a memory or story about your person?” (Don’t worry you won’t upset them with this question, you’ll engage them). Compare this to, “I think it might be too hard for you to talk about him/her” (Conversation ender).


“I thought I’d bring over dinner one-night next week.” Compare this to, “Whatever you need, let me know.” (Grievers often don’t know what they need. Conversation ends).


“This really stinks and feels so hard”. Compare this to, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” (This statement infuriates grievers and ends the conversation on the spot. If you can’t imagine it, then there is nothing to say).


“Your life was just beginning when this crappy thing happened”. Compare this to, “At least, you had some time together” (The ‘at-leasters’ set off grievers more than the ‘I-can’t-imaginers’. When you’re searching for the silver lining, the conversation ends. Grievers aren’t interested in a silver lining).


The commonality of all the “starters” is that they acknowledge the person and their pain. The commonality of the “enders” is that they are restrictive, limiting and do not acknowledge the person and their pain.


Conversation starters are about creating a range of possibility and responses. Share your own process of grief– if you have one. Conversation enders often involve some type of promise or hope for which we can’t possibly have a clue about (e.g., they would want you to be happy, they are in a better place).


If we can talk about it, we can manage it. Is what we are saying moving us closer to management or shutting down?