Recognizing and Speaking the “Language” of Grief
After ten years, hundreds of thousands of letters and emails and untold stories of every manner of loss imaginable, it is readily apparent that much of the lack of understanding, miscommunication and potential destruction of relationships after loss boils down to one very simple premise:
Everyone speaks his or her own grief “language”.
Moreover and whether intentional, instinctual or otherwise, when we attempt to insinuate our own grief language into someone else’s grief dynamic, the end result can be at best annoying – and at worst…devastating.
In 2004, Dr. Gary Chapman released what many consider to be a seminal relationship book, entitled “The 5 Love Languages…”. The book’s premise is extraordinary and yet so simple that I found myself wondering why its basic principles had never once occurred to me. Dr. Chapman opines that there are five distinct “languages” with which people perceive, give and receive love and the key to relationship success is to understand the love languages both spoken and received by our loved ones. The problems arise when one person expresses love using one “language” and their loved one does not understand that love is being expressed…because their own love language is different.
I found the book to be most enlightening and a game-changer in the ways that I approached all of my subsequent relationships. However, several years after reading the book, I realized that Dr. Chapman’s principles could also easily be applied to the “language” of grief recovery as well.
“What is ‘natural’?”
“What should my ‘normal’ reaction be?”
“Am I ‘wrong’ to…?”
“Is it appropriate / inappropriate to…?”
Why do the bereaved ask these very common post-loss questions? Mostly likely because the people surrounding them are not using the specific grief language particular to the bereaved; instead choosing to insinuate their beliefs, their opinions, their insights or worst of all, well-worn and generally useless clichés (i.e., “Everything happens for a reason”; “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, “Time heals all wounds”, etc.) that essentially trivialize the situation and infuriate those who are grieving. In turn, the bereaved often wind up questioning their feelings, their judgment, their choices and in some cases, their very sanity. The sad result is that relationships can be compromised or destroyed – all due to a lack of either the willingness or the ability to communicate.
(A quick and important aside to anyone who has ever asked these questions: Understand that there is no “normal” reaction to grief – there is only your reaction. There is no such thing as an “inappropriate” or a “wrong” way** to cope with grief – there is only your way. Your way may not be like everyone else – or even anyone else, come to that…and that’s OK).
So, how do we learn another person’s specific grief language in order to provide the most comfort and support? The answer is quite simple:
The fact is that everyone reveals their true grief language – and if you are really listening, your responses (verbal and practical) should come quite easily. Whereas learning another person’s specific love languages can take time and investment in a relationship, learning another’s grief language is as simple as listening – truly listening – to them. Rather than formulating opinions or sharing what you believe they should be doing during a time of loss or crisis, listen to what is being shared with you.
When someone shares their story with me, I pay close attention and wait for them to reveal their grief language…and I will respond in kind; speaking their grief language. For example, if someone mentions their faith and their particular belief system (even if they find their beliefs tested at that moment, which is common), I will respond with suggestions as to spiritual education and counsel that aligns with their beliefs. If someone specifically solicits my opinion, I will share that opinion prefaced with the words, “This is what worked (or works) for me”. In this manner, I have provided the requested opinion, while paying respect and attention to the other person, their coping methods and their grief language.
Last fall, my beautiful “like-a-daughter” (my pet name for her, as she is like my own child) experienced a horrendous tragedy…the suicide of a dear friend and colleague. As with so many suicides, there were no prior “warning signs”, no notes left behind and absolutely no explanation as to why a beautiful, talented young woman with everything to live for would take her own life. It was a sucker-punch to the solar plexus for everyone and certainly to those closest to her; all left behind to ponder the painfully unanswerable question…
Upon hearing the terrible news, I immediately reached out to my sweet girl who was overwhelmed with grief and suffering terribly. Knowing her to take a holistically New Age approach to life in general and most certainly when it comes to dealing with adversity, I quickly guided her in the direction of the education and counsel that I knew would resonate with her, provide the comfort that she needed and benefit her tremendously. Although grief recovery is my area of expertise and I am more than happy to be part of her healing journey, I also knew that practically speaking, her broken heart would be best served by resources who spoke her particular grief language better than I. Since that awful moment in time, she has shared that those resources have been incredibly helpful to her – and that is all that matters.
Speaking the correct grief language to a person in need is truly as simple as listening carefully to what they are saying, how they are saying it and understanding what it is they are seeking in the moment – be it a kind ear, a hug, a suggestion of what direction(s) in which to turn…or even a moment of laughter. Realize that if someone is sharing their feelings of sorrow, fear, doubt, guilt, anger, uncertainty, nostalgia or any other emotions and feelings associated with grieving, it is actually a compliment. It means that they trust you with their broken heart and weeping soul at their most vulnerable. Accept and embrace the compliment.
For you see, speaking the language of grief is really nothing more than conveying, “I understand. I get it. I care…and together, we’re going to get you through this”.
It too is a language of love.
**The only manner of coping that would be considered “wrong” is coping with grief or crisis in a destructive manner, i.e., abuse of alcohol; abuse of drugs (that are not directly prescribed and closely supervised by a physician); compulsive behaviors (compulsive shopping, gambling, sexual behaviors etc.), self-harm (mutilation or “cutting”) and so forth. If you feel that you either are coping or wish to cope in a destructive manner, PLEASE seek help immediately.
Carole Brody Fleet is the award-winning author of the #1 ranked new release in its genre, “When Bad Things Happen to Good Women…” (Viva Editions, September, 2015). She is also the author of “Happily EVEN After… “(Viva Editions); winner of the prestigious Books for a Better Life Award, one of the top national awards in publishing; as well as the critically praised, national bestseller, “Widows Wear Stilettos…” (New Horizon Press). Ms. Fleet is featured on numerous television shows and regularly appears as a media expert on numerous radio programs nationally and internationally; as well as in national and international print media. To learn more about Carole Brody Fleet, please visit www.widowswearstilettos.com and www.carolefleetspeaker.com