We are possessed by words. We are wordy creatures. We talk, write, text, sing, shout, and whisper words…all the time. We ponder what we said, what they said, and what we should say next time, and we narrate our lives with our internal words. We have “inside” and “outside” words, and we hope we can keep them straight. When we think about it, we realize the lie in the childhood saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” How silly and how wrong. Words can become background noise, but they retain power. We remember words said to us across our lifetimes—inspiring words, teaching words, comforting words, threatening words, hurtful words.

There are times in life, however, when despite our never-exhausted supply we find ourselves at a loss for words. There are situations that stump us as we search for some, or any, right or good words to say. Death may be top of the list for such times and situations. Because we are resilient people and are loathe to give up or give in, we will often say words anyway, and sometimes that gets us into trouble.

It begins when death comes and we naturally ask ourselves “how.” How, practically or literally, did this happen? What caused the injuries or the illness, and how did they overwhelm the body and cause it to stop? There are answers to these important questions, and usually it helps us to know these answers as much as possible. We need to add them to the stories of our lives—we need the right words to explain what has happened to us and to those who are important to us. So far, so good.

Along with “how,” we understandably ask “why,” and we need answers for both. We feel the need not only to understand the literal how about the death but also why it happened at all. This is a making-meaning, often spiritual question. Why this person? Why now? Why me and my family or circle of friends? For many, there is and will remain a significant amount of mystery in response to why. Some believe there are full reasons to be found. More believe that things happen for a reason but that those reasons mostly remain unknown (at least in this life). Still others believe there are no reasons to be found concerning individual deaths, but there are reasons to be found to continue living. People in the same family, in the same culture, and in the same religious tradition can find different answers to why and their answers can also change over time. This is not easy on us, of course, but it is how it is. We find the best words we can in response to our own why questions. Again, so far, so good.

After death has come, we also experience a compassionate need to comfort our grieving family, friends, or neighbors. We want to lessen their pain and ease their burden. We want to find just the right words to lift their hearts and dry their tears. We look inside to how we have made sense of the situation and found comfort in the midst of our why questions, and we offer our explanatory words to the grieving. Well-intentioned and desperate to feel helpful, it is here where we can lose our way.

In grief, making sense of our why is not something that can be outsourced. We cannot do it for another. It is an individual challenge to make peace with the reality of loss. We want to find the right words to take away suffering from those we love, but such words do not exist. It is not because we are not caring or wise. It is because grieving does not work that way, and there are no words to rescue a grieving person from the need to find one’s own answers, one’s own words.

Consider the following statements of meaning-making. Think how they sound and feel differently if they are said by the grieving person or by someone else:

  • He’s in a better place.
  • She is no longer suffering.
  • One day I/you will be with them again.
  • It was his time.
  • She was just too good for this world.

Feel the difference? If any of these words come from the grieving person, we listen respectfully and honor them. If these are another’s words encouraging and instructing the grieving person how to feel and think, the grieving person may understandably resist, withdraw, or feel misunderstood.

Comforting words can sometimes be found and gratefully received when they are words of care and connection rather than words related to the why:

  • I love you.
  • I will be here for you.
  • I am so sad that this happened.
  • Tell me about him.
  • When I think about her, I will always remember (fill in the blank).

Grief educator and counselor, Ken Doka, has suggested three responses for supporting those who grieve: hush, hugs, and hang out. They all require our presence and our care, but none require our words. Thank goodness.

So fellow griever, as these inadequate words come to a close, please consider yourself hugged.


Greg Adams

Greg Adams is a social worker at Arkansas Children's Hospital (ACH) where he coordinates the Center for Good Mourning, a grief support and outreach program, and works with bereavement support for staff who are exposed to suffering and loss. His past experience at ACH includes ten years in pediatric oncology and 9 years in pediatric palliative care. He has written for and edited The Mourning News, an electronic grief/loss newsletter, since its beginning in 2004. Greg is also an adjunct professor in the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Graduate School of Social Work where he teaches a grief/loss elective and students are told that while the class is elective, grief and loss are not. In 1985, Greg graduated from Baylor University majoring in social work and religion, and he earned a Masters in Social Work from the University of Missouri in 1986. One answer to the question of how he got into the work of grief and death education is that his father was an educator and his mother grew up in the residence part of a funeral home where her father was a funeral director. After growing up in a couple small towns in Missouri south of St. Louis, Greg has lived in Little Rock since 1987. He married a Little Rock native in 1986 and his wife is an early childhood special educator and consultant. Together they have two adult children. Along with his experience in the hospital with death and dying and with working with grieving people of all ages, personal experiences with death and loss have been very impacting and influential. In 1988, Greg’s father-in-law died of an unexpected suicide. In 1996, Greg and his wife lost a child in mid-pregnancy to anencephaly (no brain developed). Greg’s mother died on hospice with cancer in 2008 and his father died after the family decided to stop the ventilator after a devastating episode of sepsis and pneumonia in 2015. Greg has a variety of interests and activities—including slow running, reading, sports, public education, religion, politics, and diversity issues—and is active in his church and community. He is honored to have the opportunity to be a contributor for Open to Hope.

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