The Vocabulary of Grief

When you’ve lost a child, it can sometimes feel like you’re speaking a different language than everyone else. People ask vague questions like “How are you doing?” or “Is there anything I can do to help?” They mean well, but people often work hard to avoid acknowledging the elephant in the room.

Terms like loss and death are hard for most of us to say, and they create an awkward catch-22. Not acknowledging a deep loss a person is despairing over can appear insensitive, but mentioning it — making it real again — can introduce a melancholy tone to a conversation.

But the truth is that no parent who’s lost a child ever “forgets” the child’s death. They may not be discussing it this moment or openly grieving in front of others, but they always carry the loss in the back of their mind, like an accomplice joining them as they navigate life.

And that’s a good thing: Using words like “death” makes a loss feel real, but it also ensures it’s remembered. There’s a weird split between how a grieving parent feels a child’s loss and how the rest of the world does. The grieving parent feels a gaping hole; losing a close companion who won’t be around to witness what comes next — or participate in it — is emptying. It’s like taking notes about funny things that have happened to tell your spouse or best friend later so you don’t forget any of the hilarious details — but never getting the chance to share the stories.

Talking about that beloved companion keeps the conversation going. Words like “loss” and “death” don’t change the outcome or make it more apparent than it already was. They serve as welcome mats for the reality of what’s happened. Adopting a death-friendly vocabulary is like extending a handshake or cushioning someone’s fall; it shows the grieving person that you’re ready to be there, whether that means listening or just holding hands.

People take their cues from others. In these cases, the grieving parent is the one everyone else looks to for signals about how to act. Using “hard” words with others takes away some of their impact and deflates them so they become precise terms, but not ones that wield any special power.

That precision is part of the wonder of grief’s vocabulary. When we use specific happy words — elated, joyful, delighted — we immediately get a sense of how thrilled a person is, far beyond standard fare like “happy” or “content.” Very particular words at the other extreme do the same thing: “Sad” and “unhappy” are good starts, but terms like broken, devastated or destroyed more accurately capture the feeling of losing someone who was a piece of you.

While using these words can feel uncomfortable, we should embrace them. Sprinkling these terms into conversations gives grieving parents permission to feel how they feel and let others share in that. Keeping feelings locked up or putting on a happy face for others just ensures that the elephant in the room never leaves.

Vocabulary plays a much bigger role in sharing grief than we realize. By choosing your words carefully — in terms of accuracy, not with an eye on shielding others — you can adopt a language that honors a child’s memory and encourages healing.

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Gloria Horsley

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Dr. Gloria Horsley is an internationally known grief expert, psychotherapist, and bereaved parent. She started "Open to Hope" to help the millions in the world with grief. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Nurse Specialist, and has worked in the field of family therapy for over 20 years. Dr. Horsley hosts the syndicated internet radio show, The Grief Blog which is one of the top ranked shows on Health Voice America. She serves the Compassionate Friends in a number of roles including as a Board of Directors, chapter leader, workshop facilitator, and frequently serves as media spokesperson. Dr. Horsley is often called on to present seminars throughout the country. She has made appearances on numerous television and radio programs including "The Today Show," "Montel Williams," and "Sallie Jessie Raphael." In addition, she has authored a number of articles and written several books including Teen Grief Relief with Dr. Heidi Horlsey, and The In-Law Survival Guide.

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