Words matter: the language of grief

Did you see the BBC article about the language used to describe cancer? “Cancer clichés to avoid: I’m not brave

Words also matter when you’re grieving, and it can be a bit of a minefield for people around you.

At my retreats, we often do an activity where people give examples of the unhelpful things they’ve been told. We have a lot in common, although some examples are genuinely astonishing.

Some unfavourites include:

“I know how you feel.”

This is often accompanied with a story about their own losses, perhaps an elderly relative, perhaps a pet. But even if it was a similar relationship, nobody really knows how someone else feels, do they?

“It’s time to put this behind you.”

Can you imagine? Someone has been married for 40/50 years and they’re told this?

“You have your whole life ahead of you.”

When you’re in the agony of grief, a lifetime without your loved one might be a terrible thing to consider and not something you’re looking forward to.

“Don’t cry now. Let him rest in peace.”

Which seems to imply: You’re disturbing the dead by making such a fuss. Leave it be.

“God takes the best of them. / The good die young. / At least their suffering is over.”

Which seems to imply: You shouldn’t complain about them dying. You’re being selfish. They’re better off now.

“They’re with the Lord now. They’re with the angels now. They’re safe in heaven now.” (etc.!)

If you’re a person of faith, you might agree, or you might be struggling with that idea. But the main problem is not where they are now, but the fact is they are not here. As a grieving friend put it to me, “I’m grieving the absence.” 

I could go on and on, and you probably have some of your own examples.

I particularly dislike the common phrases that relate to “letting go” and “moving on”.

When a loved one has died, it’s not that simple.

When we have loved someone, in some sense they are still with us. It’s not the same as when they were living, of course. They don’t literally sit at our table. They don’t literally exist in the same physical space as ourselves. But they are still with us, in our thoughts and memories, in our hearts.

And that’s why instead of “moving on” – which denotes leaving behind – I personally use the phrase, “moving with”. (Also see this earlier post about “Continuing Bonds”)

“Committed suicide” is another phrase that is unwelcome. It originates from the time when suicide was a crime and implies an offense has been committed. I prefer “taken his life” or “died by suicide”, but other people who are bereaved in this way have other preferences.

Sometimes there is even a bit of controversy about the word dead. Many think we should avoid euphemisms like “lost” or “passed away”. In my opinion, it’s best to be led by the bereaved person. Hopefully they will use the terms they feel comfortable with, and this might change over time. To put your child’s name and “dead”, “died” or “killed” in the same sentence is not something any parent wants to do, and sometimes it takes awhile before they can be so explicit. So why not show a kindness and mirror the phrasing that they’re using?

There’s another side to this. When we’re talking with children about the death of a loved one, we should choose our words with care as they might take them quite literally. Saying that “grannie has gone to sleep” might lead to fear of going to sleep at night. Saying that “grannie has gone to see grandpa” might make them feel left out. (Winston’s Wish has some excellent advice about talking with children about death. Visit here )

But back to the world of adults.

Choosing our words with care is a kindness any of us can show to the bereaved.

And if we’re the ones who are bereaved, it might be worthwhile letting our friends and family know when they use a phrase that is difficult for us. They probably don’t realise it and a little explanation might solve some of our discomfort.

Old habits die hard, so have patience with yourself and others. However imperfect we all are, it is generally better to say something that nothing. (Not always – there are exceptions.)

The reality of what has happened is always going to be more difficult than the words we use to describe it. Still, the right words can make our journey through grief just a little bit smoother.


Words matter when you’re grieving, and it can be a minefield for people around you. Have patience and give a bit of guidance as to what does and doesn’t help.

Comments and further examples welcome!


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