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When it comes to “what to say” and “what not to say” to someone who is grieving, I have come to learn that prepositions matter. And so do adverbs.

American author, Nora McInerny’s husband, Aaron, died of cancer in 2014. Though she has since remarried and added children to her family, do not tell her that she has moved on. “I haven’t moved on,” she declares in her 2018 TED talk. “I hate that phrase so much, and I understand why other people do. Because what it says is that Aaron’s life and death and love are just moments that I can leave behind me — and that I probably should.” She goes on to talk about how real and present Aaron’s life and death are to her, even now, and then she gives us the adverbs and prepositions that make sense for her. “I’ve not moved on from Aaron, I’ve moved forward with him.”

An adverb qualifies a verb and expresses the circumstances around the verb or the manner in which the verb happens. A preposition governs a noun and shows a relationship between that noun and another element in the sentence. For Nora, her “moving” does not happen in a manner that leaves Aaron behind, slowly increasing the distance between her and the Aaron-element of her life. Rather, she moves in a forward-manner and the relationship between her and the Aaron-element is a with-relationship. She moves “forward with” him not “on from” him.

While we’re waxing eloquent about the grammar of grief, we might as well include tense. “Aaron was?” or “Aaron is?” Of this, Nora writes:

When I talk about Aaron, I slip so easily into the present tense, and I’ve always thought that made me weird. And then I noticed that everybody does it. And it’s not because we are in denial or because we’re forgetful, it’s because the people we love, who we’ve lost, are still so present for us. So, when I say, “Oh, Aaron is …” It’s because Aaron still is. And it’s not in the way that he was before, which was much better, and it’s not in the way that churchy people try to tell me that he would be. It’s just that he’s indelible, and so he is present for me.

I happen to be a “churchy person,” and so typically, when I talk about someone who has died in the present tense, I am referring to their current reality in the presence of Christ.

However, I cannot deny the other kinds of is-nesses of those who have died.  In a recent conversation with a woman whose husband died last year, we pondered the way that the absence of her husband is just as varied and multi-dimensional as his presence.

Like a cast and a mold… like positive and negative space… the presence and absence of a person both have a real and complex shape that we experience in the Present Tense.

One of the books I recommend to people who have lost a spouse to death is Getting to the Other Side of Grief: Overcoming the Loss of a Spouse by Robert De Vries and Susan Zonnebelt-Smeenge. I recommend it partly because I know and have been ministered to by Bob and Susan, and partly because, in my own journey, I found hope in the metaphor of grief as something that I could work through and find myself on the other side of.

I recommend it, but I know that the title might put some people off. It sounds a little too “move on”-ish.

“There is no other side to my grief!” some might say. “Grief is not like a river that I can cross and leave behind!” Or “I don’t want to overcome the loss of my spouse!”

Fair enough.

And so, for those of you who are grieving, I simply invite you to use the prepositions, adverbs, and tenses that best describe your experience. And, for those of you who are walking alongside, I invite you to give space to the other person to preposition, adverb, and tense the conversation in the way they see fit. Making this space will give you cues for how to join the conversation. But more importantly, making this space will mean that you are listening. And your listening might be the best gift you give.

Grace and peace to you from him who is,

and who was,

and who is to come,

and from the seven spirits before his throne,

and from Jesus Christ,

who is the faithful witness, 

the firstborn from the dead, 

and the ruler of the kings of the earth.

Revelation 1:4-5

Page Header Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Heidi S. De Jonge

Heidi S. De Jonge is the pastor of Westside Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Kingston, Ontario. She and her husband, Tim, a CRC chaplain, parent three grade school daughters. Heidi enjoys cake decorating, cycling, and digital scrapbooking.

9 Comments

  • Tom Brandt says:

    This is really good and a very helpful way to comes to terms with loss and grief. Thank you.

  • Tom says:

    Over many years of ministry, chatting with people, sharing tears, it’s evident to me that people in grief are under enormous pressure in American society to “move on.” That grief should be so “embarrassing” to others, that one’s pain of loss should be shelved in six weeks, is a profound disservice to life, and to death, and to those who grieve. We can do better by those who grieve. Thanks for these thoughts.

  • Pam Adams says:

    I lost a husband two years ago after he suffered for nine years with a brain injury due to an automobile accident. I still live with Charlie in the present and in the past. I hope others read this message and get the suffering and sense of separation that is evident in your message. I feel it all the time. But others think we have to get over it and are remiss if we don’t.

  • Jim Payton says:

    This is so insightful and compelling. You give room for grief and the complexities of love in the face of death. Thank you; this will stay with me.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Heidi, for the balanced treatment toward those who have lost loved ones. Often Christians look for opportunities to share a word from God or from the Bible. That can be offensive to many, as well. Or a minister using a funeral service or memorial service as the opportunity to share the gospel can be offensive. A funeral is not an evangelistic opportunity. Along with what you suggested, Heidi, know your audience or the one you hope to comfort.

  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    We often hear that we must “find” meaning in loss, as though meaning is out there somewhere for us to look for. Rather, we “create” meaning from loss, and some of the creativity comes in partnership with the one who has died. It may be a lifelong process. .

  • Jan Heerspink says:

    One of my best concepts about grief comes from C.S.Lewis. People want to know if you are “over it,” and he asks something like this: if you have to have your leg amputated, do you ever get over it? No, you learn to live with it –and you live differently.

  • Marge VanderWagen says:

    Thank you for article and comments. My husband died a little over 3 years ago. In the two support groups I attend, your article and the comments will be so reassuring to the participants. Since I am a pastor, this adds to my ability to minister.

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