Barbara Walters on How to Be There for the Newly Bereaved and Heartbroken
By Maria Popova
“The people we most love do become a physical part of us,” Meghan O’Rourke wrote in her beautiful memoir of mourning, “ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.” And when we lose them, be it by death or earthly separation, the sense of rupture is real and raw. There isn’t always a Zen master on hand to help us make sense of loss; often, all we have is the simple generosity of each other’s sympathetic ear.
Some of the finest advice on the art of this vital sympathetic listening comes from a somewhat unlikely source: trailblazing broadcaster Barbara Walters (b. September 25, 1929).
By the time she was forty, Walters had been seen by more people than any other woman on television. Her extraordinary ability to land interviews with seemingly unapproachable people — from poets to presidents, ballplayers to billionaires — was eclipsed only by the sentience with which she coaxed even the most guarded of her guests out of their shells and into conversations alive with humanity. In the late 1960s, she began collecting her insights about this intricate art of conversation in How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything (public library), in which a section on difficult conversations addresses the challenge of showing up for loss and the moral imperative that, despite the discomfort, we show up anyway, with attention and grace.
In a sentiment triply astute today, in our age of social permissible and easily disseminated unsympathetic bile, Walters writes:
Things being what they are in the world today, we are more and more driven to depend on one another’s sympathy and friendship in order to survive emotionally.
People busting with good will and an abundance of mental health are charming company; their need for ego-boosting, however, is minimal. People sinking into self-pity and depression are dreary, but they can’t get out of it by themselves. So every now and then, just sit there and listen, and listen, and listen. You’re paying your membership dues in the human race.
One particularly trying experience that calls for such patient listening is that of loss in its various guises, from bereavement to breakup. Walters writes:
There’s a long period after a death when self-control is fragile. Pity smashes it flat and leaves the bereaved person feeling naked and mortified.
You’re going to have to use your own tact to gauge [what] the grieving person wants… If you have privacy, and if the death was recent, it’s more likely that the person will want to talk of nothing else, will need to talk of nothing else. There’s a Hebrew proverb about “wearing out” grief — if you bottle it up, you’ll never soften it. “Give sorrow words,” said Shakespeare. “The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.”
When you’re with someone who has had a recent loss, and who wants to talk of nothing else, you’re going to have to compose yourself for patient, sympathetic listening. Life isn’t easy; every conversation can’t be a joy. And in later years, he’ll remember gratefully that you listened when he needed you most.
But these principles, Walters points out, apply to other forms of loss as well, from heartbreak to moving:
All grief is not for the dead. People show the same symptoms of grief — lassitude, preoccupation with one topic, a general grayness — when they have been through mutilating surgery, or when a marriage or a love affair ends before they were ready, or when they’ve just moved from a place where they lived long and happily, or when their self-esteem has ben punctured by the loss of a job or failure to be chosen for an expected honor.
Be tender; let them tell you how rotten they feel, and what a lousy world this is. Don’t argue and try to point out that they have no problems. Sometimes as with teenagers just sympathetically saying, “I know, I know,” helps.
Complement this particular fragment of How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything with Elizabeth Alexander on love and loss, David Whyte on the true meaning of heartbreak, and these intelligent and sensitive children’s books about navigating loss.
Published September 25, 2015