Start With One - Putting Words to Grief Experiences

Start with One - Putting Words to Grief Experiences

by Katie Huey

In the aftermath of the unexpected loss of my father, people said many things to me. Some responses were helpful. Others were less than, laced with discomfort and an obvious desire to keep pain at a distance. 

There is one statement I heard often. You’ve probably heard it too. 

There are no words. 

Maybe they couldn’t find words. I swirl in words, having used plenty to grapple with unexpected death. I tire of the blank stares I receive when expressing my grief to others. Our culture is horrendous at putting words to loss. 

We’re coming out of a year of seismic loss and the road to recovery is bumpy and full of unknowns. The New York Times recently estimated that one in three Americans is grieving a loved one who died due to COVID.

What if how we respond in the face of grief can change? This work isn’t only for the eloquent. It’s for the fumblers, the patient, the let-me-try again people.

What if we coached, questioned, and fumbled through the confusion by practicing? We’re imperfect humans who can learn how to tend to individual and collective pain.  

These tools may make you feel uncomfortable. The concept of combining play with pain is foreign in our culture. If you aren’t ready to try, that’s ok. 

These exercises are permission giving. You don’t have to share your reflections with anyone. They are designed to reveal whatever may be bubbling under the surface for you. Tend to your heart. Tap into your dark humor. Create space for the sticky stuff you wish you could share with others. Equip yourself with phrases to support others. 

Take a few minutes to read through the exercises below. When you’re ready, find a pen and some paper, and let’s get started.

Start with one word.

Ask yourself which part of your grief process you want to focus on. Write these focuses across the top of a page. Topics can include memories, feelings, frustrations or things you are struggling with. 

Then make a list of all the words that come to mind related to your chosen focus. 

Challenge yourself to only use one word at a time rather than phrases and see how many words you can generate. 


Focus = Things They Loved: cheeseburgers, Sunday, flannel, fish, pinball 

Focus = I'm Struggling With: communication, sleep, fear, peace, bills, truth, shoes

Let More Words Flow

Perhaps people say, "There are no words" because they don't know where to start. The first exercise does just that. 

Circle one to five words from your lists and ask yourself, "If I could help others understand these words, what would I say?" Take five to ten minutes to write freely about each word. Explore where you can combine words on your list to make bigger ideas. 

You can also use these prompts to get the juices flowing.

What do I want the world to know about the person I love?

What do I miss about the person I lost?

What am I proud of in handling this new reality?

What is different now after I lost my person?

How do I want to show up for those who are grieving?

What brings me comfort?

What does being a helper mean?

Make note of what comes up for you. Start to count how many words you just used to share your experience. You can choose to keep your lists to yourself or share with people you trust.

Use Different Words Instead

Even after experiencing my own loss, I still get tongue-tied when encountering others grief and pain. I've come to rely on these phrases to share with others as they walk their own grief journeys. You can use these phrases to comfort rather than dismiss pain. 

20 words - Life knocks us to our knees in so many ways. I'd like to bring over dinner. Would that be ok? 

12 - I loved your dad. Can I tell you a story about him?

8 words - Can I call and check in later today?

7 words - I'm sending comfort and light your way.

6 words - I'm not sure what to say. 

3 words - I'm so sorry. 

2 words - This sucks.

1 word - Ugh.

Words put us on a path to healing, discovery, and connection. You get to choose how to use your words to comfort others, remember, and integrate your loss. Don't let others tell you no words exist. Look how many you just used to honor your experience.


Featured in our April 2021 issue, "Word/Play"