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Swearing and Grief

I can't help you if you censor yourself and only tell me the nice things. Saying nice things will get you a Tootsie Pop. Honesty gets you my compassion.
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People think that swearing isn't polite, especially in public. Some of us can't even swear at home without feeling guilty. People also think that talking about grief isn't polite, so those who are grieving have to rein in their emotions to what is nice.

But death isn't nice, and when someone we love dies, we try to stuff our grief into the Polite Language Box, and it doesn't fit. Grief's emotions are too big.

When someone kicks us in the genitals, we don't say, "Ouch, that hurts."

We swear and try to punch the person who kicked us. When Death does the kicking, we have no one to punch, so we swear even more -- at cancer, accidents, suicides, stillbirths.

Words are powerful. The right word at the right time can change a person's outlook completely around. Words help us express anger, despair, and frustration, yet there are no words that can remove grief.

The swearing of grievers is not simply borrowing the military's salty language, although the imagery of going into battle fits because we are fighting to survive. We swear because we have to. Swearing releases the pressure that builds up inside. Otherwise we would crack.

Swearing is effective at sharing strong emotions, and this is different than swearing to tear someone down.

I was talking about this with Steve, a friend who is in his 60s. He noted that swear words like the f-bomb do not have the same shock and power for people his daughter's age as it has for him. For people in their 20s and 30s, the f-bomb is colloquial, a toss-off expression.

Ludwig Wittgenstein nailed it: "The limits of my language set the limits of my understanding."

If we're grieving and don't let ourselves swear when we need to swear, then we begin to censor ourselves, and when we censor ourselves, we stop dealing with what is really gnawing at us, and we get stuck in grief.

By letting ourselves swear, we reach the emotions that are flowing under the surface, the deeper levels within us that we keep hidden. Swearing opens them up so that we can deal with them.

Whether we acknowledge them or not, these emotional sub-currents still affect us. We may think we're sailing along on the smooth surface of grief's ocean because we're handling each day's problems, but underneath we're one churning mess. Here's the thing. We don't get a handle on grief until we wade into the mess.

Swearing is the visceral language of grief.

Whether we swear or not, there is a larger issue. Because people in our society haven't talked openly about grief for decades, we've forgotten how to talk about it intelligently and expressively. We're forgotten its language.

Finding the right words to describe your grief to others is crucial. If you say your grief is "hard," I don't know what you mean. It's "hard" in what way?

Is it hard because you feel lonely without your spouse? Or hard because you're exhausted from having to do all the chores? Or hard because you're depressed and don't know if you can pay all your bills? Or, if you lost a child, is it hard because you will never see their lives blossom? Or hard because you can't forget the pain they suffered while dying?

I need you to say more. This is where sitting down and asking you questions come in. Sometimes by my asking about what I do not understand, you search for better words to explain and come to understand something that you did not see clearly.

As good as swearing is for expressing deep emotions, there is a time when all words go mute and we fall on our knees and howl inarticulate sounds. I have heard keening only once, and it unsettled my bones. In the old days, when Celtic people lost someone they loved, they would go out and keen on the moors. This might be the purest expression of grief, when our entire body weeps and shakes with the emotions that are ripping our hearts apart.

Swearing is the raw emotion of grief given physical form.

I don't swear often in my writing. I can think of only two instances. The first time was in my essay on dealing with grief while staying in Gethsemani Monastery for a week. The second time was in an incantation poem of anger and frustration called "Bang the Drum." It has not yet appeared in public.

Look. The death of someone we love one is probably the worst thing that will ever happen to us.

If you feel like swearing when you're grieving, do so. I won't be offended. If you don't feel like swearing, that's fine, too. The thing is, I don't want you to hold your grief back. I want you to face it with all the honesty you can muster, and I want you to be honest when you share your grief with me.

I can't help you if you censor yourself and only tell me the nice things. Saying nice things will get you a Tootsie Pop. Honesty gets you my compassion.

This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at