“I didn’t leave him on a train”

Exploring the language of loss

On the bottom shelf of my book case sits my dictionary. The edges of each page are sandy coloured with age. As I open this heavy tome, I bow my face and breathe in the unmistakable fragrance of old book, transporting me to my Nan’s spare room, though she has been dead for 20 years and her house has long been sold.  This is the power of smell. It is an instance passageway through time. This form of transportation is a common thread with my clients, many of whom describe how a particular smell blurs the edges of time and brings a deceased loved one into momentary re-existence.

In my role as a counsellor, I accompany grieving clients daily. Each experience they relate to me is as unique as the relationship they had with the person who is no longer alive. And also, I hear a familiar refrain in the words they use. They speak of their sense of loss, literally of being lost in unfamiliar terrain. Loss is such a small word to encompass what is often a monumental event.

The Definition of Loss

The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary, 1989, defines loss as

“act, instance or process of losing: Loss of blood, health, prestige, money. The loss (ie death) of his wife was a great blow to him. Without (any) loss of time. A temporary loss of power.”

Death of someone we love is a great blow (even when we think we are prepared, for example, after a long illness). Time warps and twists, minutes can be endlessly static and infinitely long whilst days pass in a hurried blur. Loss of our own sense of empowerment or control is common as are the accompanying waves of fear (How will I continue without them?) or anger (How could life do this to me? How could my loved one do this to me? How did the doctors allow this to happen?)

Yet the word we use to encompass the complexity, depth and breadth of death is ambiguous and minimises the very experience of grief. Loss. As so many of my clients have said, “ I didn’t lose my (brother/mother/husband/child…), I didn’t leave them on a (insert mode of public transport of your choosing)”. The language of loss is inadequate and misleading.

Terms that have seeped into our communal understanding of death encompass the theatrical (curtains), the soporific (rest, sleep), the transitional (passing, passage, exit) and the irrevocable (final dissolution, end, demise). All of them spectacularly fail to express the physical impact and emotional turmoil of someone we love dying.

I am familiar with the sense of alternative reality that often engulfs those still living after a death. The sense that this is not really life, this can’t be real. The sense some people have of being displaced, dislocated from their own bodies, unable to think, barely able to breathe and yet continuing to exist.

“Feathers In the Kitchen”

I also recognise the cautious look a client gives me, a momentary hesitation, before they disclose something that they would have found unthinkable to say ‘before’.

“I get messages”

“There are feathers in the kitchen and I know she has been there”

“I still speak to him about my day” 

“She hides things, like my glasses”

And then another pause. My client waits for my reaction, my judgment. The truth is these experiences are normal. Yes, normal. I know they are normal because I hear these admissions repeatedly. I have yet to hear a disclosure so fantastical that I fail to trust my client is telling their truth. We have become bound up by logic and the need for empirical evidence. We have lost touch with the knowledge that death often feels the same as shared life and is different. We are scared of sharing the new relationship we have with someone who has died. We fear being judged. The phrases I hear simply express one of the languages of grief, the continuing bond (Klass, Silverman & Nickman, 1996).

A Continuing Bond

The continuing bond is found in the widow who glimpses her dead husband in the garden as she prunes the roses. It is found in the joyous dreams of a mother who wakes to the painful knowledge that her child no longer sleeps in the room next door. It is found in the tears of a son who sits on the bench where his Dad once sat to throw crusts to the birds.

Our stunted spoken language around death is also exemplified by the phrases “get over” and “move on”, which suggest rejection and dissociation from the past. Rather we can use the phrase “move forward”, which accepts and respects both past and future. There is no timeline for grief either, no sell by date on the love we still feel.

Think of language as a way to communicate. Sometimes we use words, yes, but not exclusively. We communicate with our eyes, our bodies, our energy, sometimes through art, sometimes through dance. Even our dreams are forms of communication. The ways to communicate are infinite.

We can learn the language of loss, of being lost, of grief. We can learn to appreciate the bittersweet scent of a nostalgic memory. Eventually we can find the language of a new normal too. Human beings are resilient, it is possible to move forward, to grow, to find joy and hold that joy in the same space as our more painful experience. The initial step is to honour our grief and pay attention to it. The language of death can heal, first we need to expand our vocabulary.


Klass, D., Silverman, P.R., & Nickman, S. (1996) Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief. London: Taylor & Francis

Helen Clarke is a qualified Humanistic Integrative Counsellor based in Coastal West Sussex. She specialises in loss and the associated physical signs of profound, traumatic loss, such as palpitations, sleep issues, panic attacks, vivid and recurrent dreams, unexplained aches & pains, a sense of immediate and physical fear or overwhelming sadness.

Follow this link for more information on Helen’s private practice. https://safespacesussex.co.uk

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