During a time of loss the people who care about us are often quick to offer unsolicited advice and counsel in an effort to comfort us. However, the language they use—although unintentional—often exacerbates our sense of isolation and confusion. While intended to comfort or encourage, their words often leave us feeling even more alone in our grief.
In my work as a grief counselor, I have become acutely aware of the power of words to influence our perspective and experience of personal loss. I devote an evening of my ongoing grief support group to a discussion of this topic, and I offer alternative language to use when discussing one’s grief journey with others. This discussion—perhaps more than any other during the course of my group—is often transformative for the attendees who have been hurt by the words and well-intentioned advice of others.
“You really should be moving on by now…”
My suggestions include challenging the use of the word should in any discussion of one’s grief work. There simply are no “shoulds.” Certainly, there are universal features of the grief experience. However, there are many more features which contribute to the uniqueness of one’s journey, and often amplify those intense feelings of being alone in our grief. These features include the individual’s age and stage of life at the time of their loss, their relationship to the deceased, and the stability and intensity of that relationship at the time of the death. The circumstances of the death itself can often complicate the grieving process as well. This includes the age of the deceased at the time of death, whether the death was sudden or anticipated, and whether the death occurred as a result of natural causes or from an accident or tragedy. It becomes quite clear when all of these factors are considered, that any idea of how someone should be enduring the process of grief is entirely unreasonable. Grief work is an arduous and uniquely individual experience, with no rules and no “shoulds.”
“Isn’t it time for you to just let go?”
“Why haven’t you gotten past this yet?”
I suggest that the griever consider the task to be that of moving forward. Suggestions of moving on, letting go and getting past imply the need to somehow leave our loved one behind. When in fact, the real challenge is to figure out how to move forward,with one’s loss now being a part of what informs who they are now.
“When are you going to get back to normal?”
The loss of a loved one changes us forever. With this understanding, it becomes evident that getting back to normal is not a goal at all! We will never be the same person we were before our loss. We absolutely can feel joy, love, and happiness in our lives again, but it will be a new normal; nothing like before our loss.
“You should be reaching a place of acceptance soon…”
I also take issue with the concept of acceptance. Here, I am referring to the painstakingly long ordeal of learning how to live our own life with our loved one no longer a part of it. If we consider the dictionary’s definitions of acceptance, we learn that it can mean:
the act of taking something that is offered
a favorable reception
to receive willingly
to give admittance or approvalto
to endure without protest or reaction
to regard as normal or inevitable
the act of assentingto or agreeing
A common theme of choice or a sense of willingness is implied with each of these variations of the definition of acceptance. However, our loss has certainly not been our choice. Nor would many admit to any sense of willingness to confront life without their person. With this perspective of the idea of acceptance in mind, is it any wonder why so many people who are grieving report feeling offended when asked by others if they have “accepted” their loss yet?? Quite the contrary, their feelings are often ones of resistance and protest.
I suggest we replace the word acceptance with the words adapt and accommodate. Through many conversations with people struggling in their loss, there is a strong consensus that these words more accurately reflect how they are attempting to manage their day-to-day struggle. They readily acknowledge that they are trying to adapt to the changes that their loss has imposed on them. They further recognize that it is possible to accommodate—or make room for—the changes to their own lives that have occurred—through no fault of their own. Informing a well-intentioned observer that they are hard at work attempting to adapt and accommodate to their loss feels more congruent with their actual experience, than an effort to reach some undefined (and often unimaginable) place of acceptance of their loss.
Finally, as a person makes their way through their grief journey, finding ways to cope with the emotional overload, and meeting the challenges of simply getting through each day, there eventually comes a time when the load begins to lighten. Moments of quiet reflection replace anguishing sorrow. There are more sweet memories and fewer feelings of emptiness. It is during this transition that I often suggest we shift our language from words focused on the loss to those that highlight all that our loved one has meant to us. I suggest we leave behind the language of loss and step into our future speaking in terms of honoring—rather than grieving. This final shift in the use of our language of loss supports our renewed sense of our own life as it begins to take shape again.