The four languages of grief

The loss of someone close to us is one of the most heartbreaking and devastating things that can happen. But

The loss of someone close to us is one of the most heartbreaking and devastating things that can happen. But not everyone grieves in the same way. Despite knowing this, sometimes people believe that someone isn’t grieving properly if it isn’t the same way they grieve.

So we wonder: is there ever really a right way to grieve?

Some believe there are grieving languages. These are plain to see in a situation such as one person retreating away when someone close to them dies, while another puts on a brave face and carries on. One thing we can all agree is that no matter what, we do feel that passing of someone and it is one of the most human emotions we can feel. We ask ourselves questions like “What is normal?” and “Should I feel like this/do this/say this?”

One theory about this process comes from grief author Carole Brody Fleet who proposed that the bereaved ask themselves these questions because of the people around them who are going through the process of grief or have gone through it before. The people surrounding us when we’re grieving may not grieve in the same way and will ignore this fact and instead push their own beliefs about the right and wrong ways to mourn.

You may have heard someone say ‘It’s been 5 years now, it’s time to move on’ if you tend to dwell on the death or ‘I know how you feel’ if it’s still fresh. Neither of these are helpful and yet it never seems to occur to some people that no one reacts to a whole range of things in the same way as you, no less grieving.

In movies you see the main characters blowing their noses into tissues and bawling their eyes out, only to cut to the next scene and be operating as normal. This has created a society that believes that once the funeral is over, it’s time to get back to it. Crying or feeling sad is not perceived to be normal after a certain amount of time.

So how can we learn to see how someone else deals with grief? Brody Fleet suggests something very simple and that is just listen.

She believes that everyone reveals their true grief language and your responses to it can come easily if you just take time to listen, truly listen. “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”, she said.

These are the languages of grief according to the journal Health Psychology and Behavioral Medicine. There are four ways of responding to grief which can be interchanged with the four ways of expressing grief:


Verbal responses

Verbal responses are those that show grief through with the use of words i.e. talking to friends and family or medical professionals.

Nonverbal responses

Nonverbal responses are thoughts or reflections kept to oneself and may be silent or reflective.

Physical responses

Physical responses are composed of physical signs, bodily expressions, and sensual aspects such as seeing and hearing. Other types of physical responses are weeping. Sobbing, sighing or sudden, intense emotion.

Physical activities

Physical activities are intentional expressions that involve action or objects. Physical activities are exemplified by attending funerals, planning and holding memorial services. Another example of a physical activity is to make a sudden change in one’s lifestyle after the death.



Narrative is associated with storytelling and is a familiar form of communication for the bereaved who tell and retell the story of the death of their loved one. Narrative combined with nonverbal (reflective) activity is exemplified by sitting in a favourite place and internally reflecting on the person who died.


Symbolism represents symbols that are integral to a relationship. The spouse of a fisherman might scatter his ashes at sea, a physical activity with symbolic meaning. Mothers who have experienced the death of their babies often describe an aching sensation in their arms, a symbolic physical response, as the aching reminds them of the baby they hoped to cradle.
Being heartbroken or having a broken heart is metaphorical language to describe the sensation in one’s chest of intense grief (metaphor and physical response). A grieving friend may create a jigsaw puzzle from the photo of a butterfly, a metaphor for her dead friend who danced “like a butterfly”; although the pieces of the puzzle can be reconstructed, the scars of separation remain. Metaphors provide a means to both cognitively and emotionally express grief, and are “basic to creative thought”.


Analysis refers to taking ideas about the death of an individual and identifying which ideas may be useful for some purpose. An example of this is deciding that some family members or friends may be more helpful and available to the griever than others.
It’s important to remember that given this information, you can move through grief and can be happy again, but in your own time. Use the people around you to help you if you need to, or to kindly let them know you will do it in your own time.
Tell us, do you have a language of grief that you have used before? 
  1. I don’t believe any two people grieves the same way it’s something we all have to take as long as necessary and don’t listen to what others have to say about it, we will all know when we are ready to move on.

  2. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, only your own way. 💔

    • But ‘your’ way may be never to talk about it and suffer decades of grief – this can lead to complicated grief and that, imo, is the wrong way. Experts in the army state the guy who sits at the back (after traumatic events) and says, “No I am ok – no problem” is the one who is invariably in trouble later. Best way to manage grief is to share and talk – as little and as much as you like – but don’t leave it too long to do it.

    • I agree that burying it can lead to more problems, Merran. Thinking about it now, I suppose that to me doing that isn’t allowing yourself to grieve.

  3. I don’t believe anyone ever gets over loss…we collect grief and store it in whatever way fits for each person…then we bring it out at times when we feel sad or happy or tired or stressed etc…It is a way in which we keep our loved ones close and this way its like sharing things in our life with them….Grief is a precious collectable emotion and an becomes an important part of everyone’s lives…we never ‘forget’ our lost ones and nor should we be expected to…they are forever in our hearts and our minds and i think that is great…It is up to the individual how they store their loved ones and when they bring them out so why can’t we all just accept that and not have expectations that we should put them aside forever just because they are no longer with us in person….keep loving your lost ones as they will be forever part of your lives or not depending on what each person believes…and any view is ok if it feels right for you

  4. Speaking as someone who has experienced much grief in their life time, my mum, my dad, my sister, my grandparents are all gone. I don’t think you ever really go back to how it was, but they are always with you and some days are good and others are not so good. When I sleep, my sister speaks to me, so she is not really gone at all

    • Don’t allow it to hold in, Libbi, let it go and try not to allow it to get on top. I understand your grief; all of them and two wives as well. But hey, at 75 I reckon I’m still only 3/4 of the way there, myself, so life has to proceed. Really, it’s good.

    • I don’t think we ever get over the loss of people we love Libbi, I think we just learn how to live with it in our own way, I still have a cry now & then about my grandparents & my Dad, but I also have happy memories of them that make me happy ( life can be a bitch sometimes ) we just have to be thankful we had them in our lives & appreciate the ones that are still with us, just keep talking to your sister 😇 I have a talk to Dad sometimes😊😘

  5. Yes I lost my Husband four years ago 2011 and no it’s not easy but as my boys said Mum life goes on I have done moved forward as I am sure he wouldn’t of wanted me to just sit around, I have just come back from a Coach Tour and our first day in Zurich I was walking down the street with my girlfriend and I spotted the church where near by my Husband and I had had lunch sitting near there in 2011 I just lost it and went back to the coach the tour director got off the bus and asked what was wrong I said I am fine he said no gave me a big hug and said come on something has upset you here just tell me I am here to listen and I will never forget for that he was so compassionate and it made a big difference.

  6. No, there is no ‘proper’ way to grieve. As I wrote a few months ago, I don’t think we can ever categorise stages or languages of grief, for the obvious reason we are individuals and our grief is ever a personal journey. I do admit there are those desperate enough to clutch at generalisations so, to them, metaphors are worthy.

  7. When my last husband passed away I hated that people avoided me, I know it was because they didn’t know what to say

    • This is when you really need them, just their company and knowing they are there for you.

  8. No rules. I’ve found it’s also different depending on who I’d lost, parent, sibling, friend, pet. It can be very protracted and very messy. It can feel like your heading for the funny farm. Even years later, when you feel like your over the worst of it, it can still sneak up and give you a very bad day or so.

  9. “Grieve in your own way, Heal in your own time” . As soon as I got home after my husband died, I gathered things of his & put them all on one shelf. I felt I nwas creating a Shrine & wasnt sure if it was right or wrong, but I just had to do it!

  10. Grief is whatever you feel is right for you. Memories keep the person ‘alive’. After 17 years life has gone on but I still miss my husband.

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