A Road Less Traveled

~ notes from an uncommon journey ~

Stephen Colbert Models How to Talk to a Griever



I've embedded the extended interview because much of what I refer to below was edited 
out of the broadcast. It's coded it to start at the beginning of their discussion of Rob's son.


Even if you've
lived through loss yourself, it can still be very difficult to know how to talk to someone who has experienced the death of someone very close to them. Especially since, unlike "normal" people (you know, those who haven't experienced a profound loss—yet), you know how useless any "words" you might offer will be.

But last Wednesday night, Stephen Colbert, while interviewing comedian Rob Delaney, conducted a master class in talking to a griever—about their loss and grief, no less.

First, some background: In 2016 Rob and his wife's youngest son, Henry, developed a brain tumor. Two years later, he died. Rob has written a memoir about the experience, A Heart That Works. He was appearing on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to promote the book.

Here's what Stephen did:

  • This one is more about talking about grief than it is talking to a griever, but I noticed and was impressed by the way he eased into the grief-and-loss portion of the program by asking Rob about his book. That made it less jarring for the audience, at least, than it would've been if he suddenly was like, "Soabout your son's death...."

  • At one point, Stephen acknowledged that (in grief time), five years is not very long. (Can confirm.)

  • This one's my favorite: He simply said to Rob, about Henry, "Tell me about him." And then he and the audience listened as Rob told multiple stories about his dear Henry. What many "normal" people don't realize is just how much grievers want—no, need—to talk about their loved one. And how appreciated having people just listen to them would be.

  • At the end of the interview, Stephen thanked Rob for telling his story.

And here's what Stephen didn't do:

  • Shrink from the topic. He had Rob on the show (Rob didn't promote any other project besides the book, so it's not as if he might have appeared on the show around this time anyway.) 

  • Say things like oh my god or I'm sooo sorry or anything like that. It may be very tempting say such things, but I believe many grievers feel that such reactions can seem more pitying than empathetic. Some alternatives that I think work better are I love you (if it's someone I'm close with), This sucks, My heart is with you.

  • This one may be the most impressive of all: Refer to his own experience with grief in any way.  This one I find tricky because one of the ways I empathize with people is by telling stories that demonstrate how I can relate. But some people find that such a response makes it seem like I'm trying to "make it about me" or to "one up" them.

    So we need to either have deep-enough knowledge of the person to know how they'll take our response or, failing that, feel them out about what will seem most helpful to them. I don't think most people would mind being asked, "Would it feel supportive if I talked about how and why I can relate? Or would you rather I not do that?"

Talking with grievers about their grief is never easy, but I believe we would do well to follow Stephen's example.

A Hero For Our Times

Note: I started this post not long after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on February 24 and wasn't able to finish it as soon as I'd have liked. But I'm posting it anyway, for the record.

Background photo: Official portrait from president.gov.ua,
used under Creative Commons license CC BY
4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Very slight color
balancing, overlay design, and typography by me.
In the face of Russia's aggression, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy stood up and defended his country—as have the Ukrainians generally—and became a hero around the world.

It's pretty clear that Vladimir Putin lied to his forces about what Russia would be doing in this war. Indeed, Putin, through the state-controlled media, which is all most Russians have access to, has been lying to the Russian people about Ukraine and Ukrainians for decades.

Also...Vladimir did not count on Volodymyr. 

And he underestimated the Ukrainian people's resolve to defend their homeland, to fight for their freedom, to resist tyranny. 

But all of that was after Volodymyr had already inspired with this speech (his inaugural); I highly recommend watching the entire thing; it's fantastic--and it has English subtitles:


Every one of us is the president now. Not only 73 percent of [Ukrainian voters] who voted for me—all 100 percent.... It's our common chance for which we take shared responsibility. And now it wasn't just me who took the oath. Each of us—each of us—put a hand on the Constitution. And each of us swore loyalty to Ukraine.... Starting today, every one of us bears responsibility for Ukraine, which we will leave to our children. Each of us, in our places, can do something for the development of Ukraine.... And each of us is a migrant worker. Yes. Those who didn't manage to find their place at home but found earnings in a foreign country. Those who, fighting poverty, had to lose their dignity. But we will overcome all of this. For each of us is a Ukrainian. We are all Ukrainians. There's no less of a Ukrainian or more of a Ukrainian. The right Ukrainian or wrong Ukrainian. We are all Ukrainians.


And the invasion was before Volodymyr inspired again:




Screenshot of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert's February 28, 2022, episode via Youtube.

In one of his now-daily video updates (which he posts to his Instagram account), he said the following:

When I ran for presidency, I said that each of us is the President. Because we are all responsible for our state. For our beautiful Ukraine. And now it turns out that each of us is a warrior. The warrior in his or her own place. And I am confident that each of us will win.

Here's that clip, thanks to @therecount:

Originally I was going to sub-head this post, "All the best Zelenskyy content you need in your life." But it quickly became clear that if I populated this post with all the times that Volodymyr Zelenskyy has inspired me (and millions around the world), it would be longer than anyone would want to read—though I actually could write a whole other post (and probably will) about his communication style.

But of course, it's not his words that make him a hero. It's his actions. He could have fled, with US protection even, and he didn't. He could have saved his own life instead of risking it, as he is now doing every moment of every day. But—he stayed. He made his stand against tyranny. He is defending his and all Ukrainians' right to their land, to their country, and to their own self determination.

And that is why I call him...a hero for our times.
© A Road Less Traveled

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