The Language of Grief: Changing the Way We Talk and Think About Loss


Words matter. What we say, how we say it, and who we say it to matters, because those around us can be greatly impacted by the language we use and the words we choose to communicate with.

It’s what we teach our children at the very earliest stages of their development and something that is reinforced for years to come, as we go through school, manage our personal relationships and develop our professional lives.

What we don’t often get taught, and something that doesn’t get the same amount of time or attention, are the words we choose when speaking to ourselves and what words thread the fabric of our thoughts as we weave them.

Perhaps it’s because the words that go through our head don’t feel thought out at all. Like a stream of consciousness, most of what we think is automatic and becomes the background noise of our day-to-day lives.

This is bad news for most of us. Because for most people, and for the griever especially, so much of what’s going on in our heads is negative. Worry, anger, sadness, second-guessing, self doubt…

I’ve learned many things in working with those who have lost a loved one, but something that stands out is this: grief has its own language.

There are words, and especially phrases, so commonly used by those who are grieving…and while they are not unique to those who have had a loss, the meaning behind them is special and needs to be paid attention to.

When speaking to grievers about moving forward after the loss of a loved one (a goal most bereaved, in one way or another, share) I most often hear the following: 

I can’t.

I don’t want to.

I don’t know how.

These phrases aren’t usually on their own. They usually follow a much longer and more complicated story of love and loss, filled with the obstacles and roadblocks that so many grievers face as they try to figure out what’s next and where to go from here.

But as stated above, words matter. And as we talk about grief and loss, whether it’s in our own heads or when speaking to others, it’s important to examine what is REALLY being communicated when using the following phrases:

I can’t. A quick glance through the forums of our “See and Share Stories” and you’ll see this phrase more times than you can count. “My friends and family think I should be cleaning out the house (or going back to work, or taking a vacation…you can fill in any “should” here), but I can’t”. Typically in life, when we say we can’t do something it means we’ve tried. For example, I can’t waterski. I tried many years ago and despite the fact that I love the water and my balance isn’t even all that bad, when it comes to waterskiing, I can’t. So if we’re applying that same logic to the griever, it’s worth examining: have they really tried to do the things they say they can’t? Many times the answer is no. Or at least, not really. Maybe what they’re really referring to is not the act itself, but the emotional weight of what comes along with the task that friends or family or even they themselves feel they “should” be doing. So perhaps what the griever is trying to say is what they can’t do is add any more stress, disappointment, anxiety, exhaustion, or heartache to an already impossible time.

I don’t want to. I often talk about “moving forward” as a goal in grieving and while it’s something most people who have had a loss talk about, this idea is still met with resistance more often than not. As contradictory as this sounds, this one makes pretty simple sense to me. Sure, moving forward to a place where pain is not so sharp and the sadness isn’t so consuming sounds pretty ideal on the one hand. But for the griever, the realization that moving forward means settling into a life without their loved one is something they just don’t want to do. It’s understandable. Every adjustment, every adaptation, and every step forward while seemingly positive in some ways, is a step further away from a happy life shared with a love who is lost. This can be a confusing feeling for the griever and frustrating for those trying to help someone who has had a loss, as it can be hard to understand why someone would seem to almost choose to stay with the pain they have. But the bottom line is that a griever may not want to move forward because they never wanted this change or this loss to begin with.

I don’t know how. So grief and loss is very different from waterskiing, unfortunately. Because while I said I tried, I really only tried once. And if accomplishing this goal was something I really wanted to do, I could have found someone to teach me exactly where to put my feet, and just how I’m supposed to hold the line, and for the most part, doing it exactly the same way as the person teaching me would pretty much have guaranteed my success. But with grief, there is no step-by-step guide. There is no teacher in the world who can say, “do this, and you’ll be fine” because the process of grief is so different for everyone on so many different levels simply because there are so many variables influencing how a person is going to cope. Even if we have had multiple losses, we are still a brand new person each time someone we love dies, and whether it’s the first time or the fifth, this loss is unique and when it comes to coping, we may not know how. Either because we truly have never dealt with loss before or because we don’t know how we’re supposed to keep dealing with so much heartache and sadness. Friends and family will offer a lot of “should’s” to the griever who say they don’t know how to move forward. But it’s likely this group doesn’t recognize that while a griever usually knows intellectually what they need to do, they just don’t know emotionally how they are supposed to be able to handle it.

The reason any of this matters is because communication is key when trying to connect with others. And connection is ultimately what saves the griever from being lost and adrift in the sea of grief. It’s why it’s so important to learn how to express ourselves to those around us. We can get complacent in our language and our communication and we can get frustrated if we feel misunderstood, but often it’s because we don’t always understand these thoughts ourselves or know how best to express them to others.

And most of all, it matters what words or phrases we’re choosing, even if it’s only in our own head. We so often speak to ourselves with a language that is filled with defeat, and it can become very hard to break the cycle of negativity, especially after a devastating loss.

Loss and the grief that comes with it can, for better or worse, offer an unparalleled opportunity for reflection, contemplation, introspection and self-growth. And before you can say, “I can’t”, “I don’t know”, or “I don’t want to”, take a moment to think about whether that’s really true.


At, we’re all about finding connections. While there is no official path that each person can follow to guarantee success as they move forward, connecting with those who can relate and understand to the traumas left in the wake of loss helps more than just about anything else can. So visit us today and begin the journey toward hope and healing.

About the Author
My name is Karyn Arnold and I am the founder of Grief in Common, Grief in Common is a website designed to connect and match those who are grieving based on background and similar experiences of loss, for online chats and opportunities to meet in person. I have been working in the field of grief and loss for over 15 years, facilitating bereavement groups, providing support one on one, and educating the community about the grief process. I love this work. I love the resilience of human spirit I see in this work and I have always felt honored and grateful to provide an outlet for a person to grieve.Unfortunately, loss is an inevitable part of life. And while it takes time and it’s never simple, I truly believe that within each of us is the strength and courage to heal, to live and to move forward, in ways that we may never have thought possible. So take the first step in figuring out what's next and where to go from here...go to today and connect with those who will understand.
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