The Language of Grief

by Gabrielle C. Durham


by Londiwe Buthelezi

It rips through your body.
Grazing, raking, shaving away all the
protective layers you put up all those years before.
layers you used to cover all the pain
you couldn’t possibly show to others.
Grief exposes you.
shows everyone what you really are like inside.
raw and helpless…

I always thought the term “crossing the rainbow bridge” to describe a pet’s dying sounded goofy. People use it in a non-silly way, so good on them for making that work. When we refer to people who die, we use euphemisms, such as Aunt Gigi “passed” or Uncle Gogo is “gone.” It’s too difficult to say, “Grandpa died.” Go ahead, say it out loud to people, and see what happens. Everyone freezes or turns away or starts to cry. “Dead” is too direct. There’s no escaping its frigid finality.

What is grief? According to this study, it is defined as “a normal, healthy, healing and ultimately transforming response to a significant loss that usually does not require professional help, although it does require ways to heal the broken strands of life and to affirm existing ones.” It is a negative reaction to a loss. At some point, we will all grieve, whether it’s for a parent, sibling, child, spouse, friend, pet, relationship, body part, object, or national figure.

What do we say when we grieve? Some of us clam up and say nothing, processing all that has been lost in whatever way we can manage. We all know the bromides that people, ourselves included, spew. “[Person you love] is in a better place” might be the most odious phrase ever. A runner-up is “Everything happens for a reason.” But we can’t help it. We do not know what to say when confronted by pain, so we say something we would never think of uttering in any other circumstance, lower our eyes, and move on quickly to brush off so much grief-lint. I haven’t been to funerals in other countries, but I imagine it’s relatively universal that everyone is uncomfortable until food or drink is served, until some distraction presents itself.

So, what would be the correct thing to say to a person who is grieving? I suspect we overthink this. We want to display compassion, empathy, being a good friend, or maybe just fill up the awkward quiet. It may be as simple as the scene from the 2014 movie St. Vincent, when Bill Murray’s character talks about his wife dying and what people should say, such as “What was she like?” “Do you miss her?” or “What are you going to do now?” Even the anodyne line common in police procedurals, “I am sorry for your loss,” will do the trick.

As this article eloquently describes, grief is raw pain. For many of us, the only appropriate vocabulary is anger expressed through blanketing F-bombs or soggy, tearful words describing heartbreak. Both are efforts to mitigate the emotional flogging we experience when in pain. Grief requires an outlet, a way to vent, and for most of us, language is that outlet.

Grief presents differently from individual to individual. Even raging extroverts frequently become mute in the face of grief. Others yammer, looking for the correct order of words, like an incantation of endless platitudes, trying to find the words to make the hurt disappear for a second or an hour, to go back to the time before grief inflicted itself upon the landscape. Many retreat completely, using silence as a vessel to contain the pain. Some write the feelings in a journal, not trusting themselves to express feelings and emotions clearly.

According to the Talmud, “Hold no man responsible for what he says in his grief.” I like the lack of accountability of that statement. When in pain, we all become damaged animals lashing out in some small or big way. All feelings are immediate and grotesquely large, and there is no big picture to help orient us. We often become wild again, as when we were children, no longer accustomed to or even cognizant of the filters — behavioral, linguistic, socially appropriate, contextual — that adult life requires.

I do not think there is a specialized language of grief for laypeople, which is absolutely refuted by this op-ed’s glossary of grief from January 2018. As in all aspects of life, I think we play with words (or not) until the words do what we want (or not). Grieving changes our phrasing to an extent, alternately flattening and carving up the terrain. This new topography can be precipitous navigating.

The act of grieving is not linear despite our best efforts; therefore, neither should the language rendering it. When people describe grief, they talk about the waves unexpectedly bashing them. Grief is circular, although mourning typically is not. In common parlance, grief sneaks up on you; it plays peekaboo in the least fun game ever.

If you are fortunate enough to have not experienced grief, bear in mind that no one is immune. May you coast the waves rather than drown when, not if, it happens to you. I wish you the gentlest of amnesias, quoting Bahya Ibn Paquda, “If we could not forget, we would never be free from grief.”