Illustration by Clara Wright

CW: This article talks openly about death.

During his career, David Mitchell has become renowned for his outbursts on topics as wide-ranging as coffee to flat earth conspiracies. His latest rant can be seen in the second episode of the new BBC comedy ‘The Cleaner’, playing a recently bereaved writer. The spark for this outrage: Greg Davies’ crime scene cleaner saying that he is sorry for Mitchell’s loss.

‘Why are you sorry? Did you kill her?’ retorts Mitchell. Davies attempts to defuse the situation but the red mist has already begun to overwhelm Mitchell. ‘It’s another worn-out cliche. You’re not sorry. You didn’t know my grandmother. Why would you be sorry that she’s dead? It’s a bastardisation of the language.’ His final flourish: ‘You are indifferent. You didn’t know my grandmother. You are indifferent to her life and death.’

You may think that this is an extreme reaction written for comic effect. But language, or more importantly our language choices, have power. Over the years, various studies have shown how language choice impacts our decision making. One study found that using self-affirmations can activate self-processing and valuation systems in the brain. Another study showed that women were more likely to receive vague or conflicting feedback that was not connected to their work, limiting their professional development. Meanwhile, another study found that changing the text from ‘+Cart’ to ‘Add to Cart’ increased sales by 49%.

So what’s wrong with the phrase ‘I’m sorry for your loss’? Initially, it shows care and concern for the person grieving. It shows sincerity without going into detail and, most importantly for many people, it’s brief. It’s particularly useful if you don’t know the person well and or are afraid of causing offence. But its perfunctory nature is also its downside. It’s closed off. It doesn’t open up space for a conversation about the person’s grief. Its routine use means that it quickly loses its sincerity, sounding more like an automated response. Instead of embracing those grieving, it forms a linguistic barrier between the two without ever having to actively engage with the person’s loss, isolating them and othering their experience. 

It’s not just the phrase ‘I’m sorry’ that’s guilty. A poll by Marie Curie in 2019 found there were over 50 euphemisms used to talk about death. These included ‘walking over the rainbow bridge’, ‘wearing a wooden onesie’ and ‘coco-popped it’. At the time this variety of language was applauded; at least people are talking about death! But like ‘I’m sorry’, euphemisms only serve to create a buffer. They don’t engage with the person’s grief and make death more difficult for children or those with learning disabilities to understand. 

If you want to see how we as a society truly feel about grief then all you have to do is head to the bereavement cards section. There are two types of cards that you can choose from: ‘with deepest sympathies’ or ‘thinking of you’. Those are the only reactions you are allowed to have when someone is grieving. And the problem with only allowing these two responses is that they’re passive. They miss out on all the other emotions people go through in grief and leave the responsibility of reaching out to the person grieving.

I’m not saying that we should throw away these phrases entirely. In the first intense wave of grief, these phrases can be useful icebreakers to judge how comfortable someone is talking about their grief. But as you move away from that acute grief and you want to start talking about that person again, the same short, sharp phrases return. Soon you yourself feel uncomfortable whenever you try to talk until eventually, you bury those feelings and the pain and joy of that person’s life away. There have been many times in the months since my grandmother’s death that I have wanted to talk about her but felt unable to, not because I lacked the vocabulary, but because those around me through no fault of their own did.

With 171,476 words in the English language, we don’t need to invent more words to help us open up on conversations about grief. Instead, we need to repurpose these words to bring down these barriers and start talking openly and honestly. Instead of saying you’re thinking about someone, say you’re here for someone. Instead of calling them sympathy cards, call them empathy cards. Instead of saying how are you, say how are you doing today. We’re already being encouraged to reuse and recycle to create positive change. Why not create a positive space with language?

Just a Note: Bereavement services are available for all. Each article in this column will be accompanied by a charity, database or service that may be of help. Hope Again is a branch of Cruse Bereavement Care that focuses on supporting and advising young people aged 12-25, including individual counselling sessions.