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?