by Liz Walter
‘When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.’ So said Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As a general rule, grief and sadness are more interesting to writers and poets than happiness, and there are many fine descriptions in literature. However, in this post, I want to focus on language that we use in everyday speech.
Firstly, it is obviously very important to use phrases that are suitable for the level of trauma involved. You might describe someone as down in the dumps or down in the mouth if, for instance, they did badly in a job interview or failed an exam. Similarly, the phrase out of sorts is used mainly for someone who is usually cheerful, but simply seems a bit glum at the moment. However, if the sadness is caused by something serious like a bereavement (= when someone dies), those phrases would sound too trivial.
For that kind of situation, we could say that they are broken-hearted or completely grief-stricken. In British English, we talk about people being knocked sideways or knocked for six in order to emphasize their shock and pain. If someone is extremely upset about something, we can say they have taken it hard.
An informal but emphatic phrase, which seems to have become much more common recently, is to say that someone is in bits. Strangely enough, it doesn’t have any negative connotation, whereas if you say that someone has gone/fallen to pieces or fallen apart, it can sound slightly judgmental, as if they are failing to cope with what has happened.
A continuing bad situation can get you down or cast a shadow over everything, while if you feel as if you are carrying sadness inside you, you might describe yourself as having a heavy heart. We often talk about doing something with a heavy heart when we are forced into an action that makes us sad. If something makes you feel as though you want to cry, we say that it brings a lump to your throat, and if you well up, tears come into your eyes, and you might even burst into tears.
However, as sad as life can be, we don’t like people who mope around (= act in a miserable way) or wallow in their sadness (= make no effort to recover, as if they are enjoying it). If we are brave (or rude) enough, we might ask them to pull themselves together (= act in a more sensible way).