Grief Speak

I’ve puzzled again these last few days over the words we use to extend our condolence to those who grieve. Likely most of us have heard or read well-intentioned expressions of sympathy couched in “grief speak” that did little or nothing to comfort us.

Over the past nine years I’ve experience the death of my closest family members - my husband, my father, and my mother. And though I’m no expert, I’ve probably been exposed to most of the language of “grief speak”. In truth, many of the words offered in the name of comfort and care often hurt more than they help. Perhaps you’ve felt a small spark of resentment (or even anger) when someone presumes they know what you’re feeling – I’ve certainly struggled with my better self in trying moments when would-be comforters have said, “I understand” or “I know how you feel”. How could they? It’s simply not possible to know what someone else is feeling no matter how similar their experience of loss and death.

At the top of the list for me is “passed away”, a euphemism for death perhaps used to soften the harsh reality that one we know and love has died. The story in 2 Samuel 12:15-23 which tells about the death of David’s beloved child is the biblical paradigm for good “grief speak”. “But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, ‘Is the child dead?’ They said, ‘He is dead.’” The story ends with David’s declaration of faith, “But now he is dead...Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23 NRSV). I believe that when our body dies our soul and spirit live on in eternity, but we as human beings – as survivors – experience the loss of one we love as the finality of physical death.

Another unfortunate expression of “grief speak” is referring to the death of another person as a “blessing”. Because blessing usually connotes divine intervention, the use of "blessing" as a word of comfort usually comes across as an authoritative pronouncement. The thought that the death of our loved one is a blessing usually does little to ease our grief. I’ve asked myself from time to time who is blessed when someone dies. If the one who dies were able to answer, likely he or she would not perceive death as a blessing - for themselves or for others, no matter how dire the medical certainty or circumstances.

A word that’s crept into the “grief speak” of my mother’s death is “relief”. Friends have written notes and emails that suggest I am or should be or will be relieved. Yes, she was sick for several years. Yes, her care was at times all-consuming. Yes, it was a large load and a serious responsibility. Yes, I feel drained and still rather exhausted. But not for a moment since her death have I felt relief. What I feel is profound gratitude that God gave me the strength to do a very hard job. Relief is not the outcome when we do something for someone in the name of compassion, for however long our self-giving lasts. Relief is when the pain of a stubborn headache or toothache or backache goes away. Relief is when the heat of summer finally cools to autumn. Relief is when the diagnosis is something far less grave than cancer. Relief is when we know our loved ones are safe after a catastrophe or serious storm.

Seldom are we comforted by the almost limitless supply of the innocent yet superficial platitudes of “grief speak” tossed our way in the name of condolence and sympathy:

  • The “at least” suggestions - “he’s not suffering any more”, “she’s in a better place” – that do little to meet us where we are in our shock and sorrow.
  • The presumptions that trivialize our grief – “it’s for the best”, “she’s better off”, “God just needed another angel”, and on and on.

What drives our sometimes thoughtless choice of words is our human discomfort with death and the grief of others. We want those who grieve to “be over it” - quickly, we want them to “get back to normal” – as soon as possible, we expect them to “move on with their lives” - today. The vocabulary of “grief speak” is rife with impatient urgency. Those who grieve know intuitively that grief will not be rushed - the duration and experience of our grief is not influenced by the words of others.   

From my experience and observation I think we as a society and as those who seek to live spiritually need to rethink our “grief speak”. If we pause for a moment before we make a call or write a note and put our heart into the pain of another, our words will be other than “grief speak”. When we choose our words with intentional care we offer the gift of authentic condolence wrapped in understanding and sympathy. And if we start our expression of comfort with “you” and “your” rather than “I”, our words immediately change to those of care-giving punctuated by meaningful, empathic silence. We dare the open-ended question, "How are you feeling in your heart?". Or perhaps the best "grief speak" is the silence of a warm hug that says "I care". 

We learn the grace of being true comforters when our heart and mind are attuned to the suffering of one who grieves. We listen to God for words beyond “grief speak”.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also rests secure.

Psalm 16:4 NRSV

Keep me this day, O God, in the language of your care. Amen.