No Outsourcing the "Why" in Grief

We are possessed by words. We are wordy creatures. We talk, write, text, sing, shout, and whisper words…all the time. We ponder what we said, what they said, and what we should say next time, and we narrate our lives with our internal words. We have “inside” and “outside” words, and we hope we can keep them straight. When we think about it, we realize the lie in the childhood saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” How silly and how wrong. Words can become background noise, but they retain power. We remember words said to us across our lifetimes—inspiring words, teaching words, comforting words, threatening words, hurtful words.

There are times in life, however, when despite our never-exhausted supply we find ourselves at a loss for words. There are situations that stump us as we search for some, or any, right or good words to say. Death may be top of the list for such times and situations. Because we are resilient people and are loathe to give up or give in, we will often say words anyway, and sometimes that gets us into trouble.

It begins when death comes and we naturally ask ourselves “how.” How, practically or literally, did this happen? What caused the injuries or the illness, and how did they overwhelm the body and cause it to stop? There are answers to these important questions, and usually it helps us to know these answers as much as possible. We need to add them to the stories of our lives—we need the right words to explain what has happened to us and to those who are important to us. So far, so good.

Along with “how,” we understandably ask “why,” and we need answers for both. We feel the need not only to understand the literal how about the death but also why it happened at all. This is a making-meaning, often spiritual question. Why this person? Why now? Why me and my family or circle of friends? For many, there is and will remain a significant amount of mystery in response to why. Some believe there are full reasons to be found. More believe that things happen for a reason but that those reasons mostly remain unknown (at least in this life). Still others believe there are no reasons to be found concerning individual deaths, but there are reasons to be found to continue living. People in the same family, in the same culture, and in the same religious tradition can find different answers to why and their answers can also change over time. This is not easy on us, of course, but it is how it is. We find the best words we can in response to our own why questions. Again, so far, so good.

After death has come, we also experience a compassionate need to comfort our grieving family, friends, or neighbors. We want to lessen their pain and ease their burden. We want to find just the right words to lift their hearts and dry their tears. We look inside to how we have made sense of the situation and found comfort in the midst of our why questions, and we offer our explanatory words to the grieving. Well-intentioned and desperate to feel helpful, it is here where we can lose our way.

In grief, making sense of our why is not something that can be outsourced. We cannot do it for another. It is an individual challenge to make peace with the reality of loss. We want to find the right words to take away suffering from those we love, but such words do not exist. It is not because we are not caring or wise. It is because grieving does not work that way, and there are no words to rescue a grieving person from the need to find one’s own answers, one’s own words.

Consider the following statements of meaning-making. Think how they sound and feel differently if they are said by the grieving person or by someone else:
   • He’s in a better place.
   • She is no longer suffering.
   • One day I/you will be with them again.
   • It was his time.
   • She was just too good for this world.

Feel the difference? If any of these words come from the grieving person, we listen respectfully and honor them. If these are another’s words encouraging and instructing the grieving person how to feel and think, the grieving person may understandably resist, withdraw, or feel misunderstood.

Comforting words can sometimes be found and gratefully received when they are words of care and connection rather than words related to the why:
   • I love you.
   • I will be here for you.
   • I am so sad that this happened.
   • Tell me about him.
   • When I think about her, I will always remember (fill in the blank).

Grief educator and counselor, Ken Doka, has suggested three responses for supporting those who grieve: hush, hugs, and hang out. They all require our presence and our care, but none require our words. Thank goodness.

So fellow griever, as these inadequate words come to a close, please consider yourself hugged.

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Greg Adams, LCSW, ACSW, FT
Program Coordinator
Center for Good Mourning
[email protected]

Other Voices 

64 Six-word Stories on the Experience of Grief in Childhood

Children's Grief Awareness Day is recognized every year on the third Thursday of November as this time of year is particularly difficult for many. It is a day designed to help us all become more aware of the needs of grieving children - and of the benefits they obtain through the support of others. This collection highlights submissions from children with powerful stories in hopes of bringing attention to childhood grief.

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In the Spotlight

For those experiencing thoughts of suicide and those supporting them, it can be a challenge to find strategies that really make a difference. Now Matters Now is a website with brief videos that help meet this need.

Videos fall under the topics of suicidal thoughts, mindfulness, lethal means, and opposite actions. A creative and useful resource for those with suicidal thoughts and helping professionals. See More

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Particularly for Parents

One parent’s story of fighting for more time expressed in a letter to her daughter.

"I am fighting with all I have, but if this story ends early, know this — I am with you always; even if you can no longer see my face or feel my hands through your hair. I am with you when you feel a warm breeze upon your sweet face. I am with you when you see a beautiful shade of light ocean blue. I am with you on that first day of spring when the flowers bloom and everything feels new and just right." Learn More


Living All the Way

In healthcare, we have helpful guidelines for treatments of many conditions. How about helpful guidelines for the end of life?

"Modern health care accomplishes great feats of healing every day. But life ends; there are patients for whom real healing has become impossible. Their bodies have simply taken too many hits. Aggressive care can push back their death for a few days, but it is unlikely to keep them from dying soon." Read Now
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For Your Library

Adam Gets Back in the Game by Greg Adams, illustrated by Paige Mason, Et Alia Press 2019.

Greg Adams shared Adam Gets Back in the Game soon after our school family experienced the earth-shattering news of the unexpected death of one of our students. In the book, Adam’s best friend, Isaiah, dies. The students really connected with the book through the characters. As we were reading, the students responded with the phrase, “Just like our friend.” You could tell by the look on their faces they connected to the character Adam. We were experiencing exactly what Adam experienced.

As teachers, we were at a total loss on how to help our students process and grieve the death of their friend. This book gave us the avenue to begin to help our students move forward. In this story, the author compares the pain of a physical injury experienced by the character Adam to an emotional injury when his friend Isaiah dies.

The illustrations included everyone through the multicultural diversity of the characters. The students could follow the story easily because the pictures were bright and engaging.

Not only did this book help our students, it helped us, the teachers, as well. Yes, this is a “big hurt,” but we can learn to move forward and “Get Back in the Game.”

-Andrea Grice and Tarena Word

Get Your Copy Soon 

Copies of Adam Gets Back in the Game will be available for purchase and signing by the author at the ACH Gift Shop on Friday, November 22, 10:00 am-2:00 pm. All proceeds will go to the Arkansas Children's Auxiliary which supports the ACH Center for Good Mourning.  



Taking Questions: How can you move forward after the one you cared for dies?

"Other complicated feelings often come into play. 'After caregivers lose the person they cared for, there is often less grief alone, but a mixture of other emotions,' explains Dr. Marc Agronin, a geriatric psychiatrist and author of The Dementia Caregiver: A Guide to Caring for Someone with Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Neurocognitive Disorders. 'Those feelings may include sadness and uncertainty about the future, along with some degree of relief and a desire to move forward.'”


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