Has Anyone Seen an Elephant?


Has Anyone Seen an Elephant?

(Dr. Sandi Howlett)

You may be familiar with the phrase, “there is an elephant in the room”.  It refers to something big and obvious going on that everyone knows about but no one is openly addressing.    We’ve all done it – talk about or even around someone, rather than directly to them.

An elephant denied does not disappear.  It tends to grow and in doing so, takes up more space, attention and energy.    Attempts to avoid the elephant can create anxiety, misunderstanding and hurt feelings.  Such actions may be misinterpreted as a dismal lack of caring or callous disregard.

Think about your first day back to work after being away on bereavement leave.  You know that others heard or received an email about your loss. You also feel the awkwardness of returning to your workplace, a place of both friends and business peers who suddenly seem like strangers.   Your grief and loss have become the elephant in the room.   Some people will say ‘hello’ and ‘welcome back’ (without mentioning from what) and then charge quickly ahead with a comment about work or weather.  Others might acknowledge your loss and then tell you how far behind everyone is and that they need you to help catch up.  Some people will avoid you, perhaps even changing directions when they see you coming.  There are those who will briefly acknowledge you and your loss and then begin to barrage you with stories of people you will never know who have had similar or seemingly worse situations.  This one-upmanship may be accompanied by unsolicited advice of what you ‘should’ and ‘should not’ do.  These are the people you try not to clobber once you get over the shock and awe of what they have just said!

And then there are the ones who really, really ‘get it’.  These are the rare few people who know compassion, loss and grief; who are brave enough to speak and BE with you.  They bring comfort, maybe a hug or shoulder and most of all, a listening ear rather than advice or nosy questions.  These special souls can hold the space making it safe for you to be authentic in your feelings and how you express them.  This gift of presence may only last a moment and it is priceless. This kind of person is the one who bravely introduces her/himself to the elephant and invites him in.

How can you handle an elephant in the room?   The most direct way is for YOU to call out the elephant to others. Speak the name of your beloved and share whatever information you choose.  I met one manager who held a staff meeting the first day she returned to work after the death of her husband.  She shared what happened, her gratitude for their response and requested that she not be directly comforted or asked about her grief during work hours as she knew she would ‘lose it’.  Some people send an email with their gratitude as well as request for just the opposite…they WANT to talk about their loved one.

Most people do want to hear others’ experience with their loved one who has died…memories, stories, adventures and legacy gifts.  So how do you bring that up?  You lead the way by sharing your own experience and inviting others to do the same.  You might say something like:

  • I remember when Bob…
  • Do you remember the time we…?
  • Betty always enjoyed…
  • Remind me again how you met Sally.
  • What is one of your favorite memories of Juan?
  • What did being her friend mean to you?


All of these openings lead the way for authentic, heartfelt stories and opportunities to share and heal.

The next time you enter a room with an elephant, greet and embrace that big beast with an open heart.  Invite it to deliver to you the gifts of healing and the truth it has to offer.


Dr. Sandi Howlett is the Bereavement Specialist for Hansen Mortuary.
[email protected]


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