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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).