The Elephant in the Room

06/05/2015 12:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

The elephant in the room. That is term Sheryl Sandberg used for the discomfort people feel when faced with someone who is grieving and bereft. In her brave and graceful post on Facebook yesterday, Sandberg shared the experience of mourning her husband, Dave.

To her great credit, she was able to empathize with the awkwardness her colleagues felt around her and to ease it -- even though she is in the depths of her grief. When she returned to work, "Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why -- they wanted to help but weren't sure how," she wrote in yesterday's post.

The people on Sandberg's team can negotiate the most complex of international marketing deals. They travel worldwide to pitch Facebook as a vehicle for advertising. They are the best and the brightest. Yet coming up with the right words and actions at the right time stumped them when they wanted to communicate their support for their boss. These super-achievers are in the majority of the population when it comes to hitting the right note at a time of despair. When it comes to finding the right words to comfort a colleague, friend or loved one, we're at a loss for words.

Why? We feel the burden of authentic and original expression.

As modern Americans, we prize individuality and want the words we speak at critical times in life to be authentic and personal reflections of what we feel inside at that moment. Rules of etiquette were tossed out by baby boomers as they came of age. That generation (my generation) broke free of social conventions, which they found too stilted, stifling and confining. Too uncool. Today, we write our own marriage vows. "To have and to hold" is now "As our spirits jointly share the blessings of the universe," or whatever twist we give the language of a traditional ceremony. While the words are heartfelt, they can put us on the spot. What do we say? What do we do? I get anxious questions about this all the time from clients, friends and family.

It now seems quaint to adhere to fixed rules of etiquette in mourning. But take a look at Emily Post's point-of-view. In her book Etiquette, published in 1922, she wrote:

At no time does solemnity so possess our souls as when we stand deserted at the brink of darkness into which our loved one has gone. And the last place in the world where we would look for comfort at such a time is in the seeming artificiality of etiquette; yet it is in the moment of deepest sorrow that etiquette performs its most vital and real service.

There's something to be said for her perspective. Knowing what to do or say at difficult moments in people's lives can save us the agony of finding the right words ourselves -- and of making a misstep.

In my book-in-progress -- Booming Women: How to Ease into Life's Next Chapter in 180 (mostly) Painless Practices -- I discuss what to do when you learn that tragedy strikes someone you care about. In my generation--people in their fifties and sixties, the issue isn't the novelty of these occurrences, as it is in the case of Sandberg's generation. For us, it's the frequency of these events -- the illnesses, deaths and divorces, which are all devastating losses of health, a loved one or a decades-long marriage, that poses the problem.

The goal is to bring comfort, not to emote, vent or find magic words. It's land-mined territory because of the highly charged emotions that loss incurs. The two guiding principles I recommend are:
1. Remember that's not about you.
2. Plan what you're going to say.

You don't necessarily need to hew to tradition, but make sure you've thought it through before you respond to news of a loss so that your offerings, verbal and otherwise, are gracious and of service to another who is suffering. It's OK to even say, "I'm at a loss for words," and give a hug or squeeze a hand.

A little forethought can gently usher the elephant out of the room.