We Need More Words for Grief

Mountains of Santa Fe in purpleJust like Eskimo tribes are said to have 200 words for snow, we need many more words for grief. Is the grief I feel today the same as the grief I felt when Larry first died? Is the rush of “ambush grief” that overtakes me unawares and strikes me down, the same as the gentle fond grief I feel when I catch sight of one of his photos?

I was reading a post on a widow/widower discussion group that talked about someone naming grief that lasted too long “stale grief.” That strikes me as wrong in so many ways. What’s too long? When I cried in my neighbor’s arms this morning and it’s almost a year since Larry died is that stale grief? Would it be if it had been 2 years?

I remember my mother tearing up talking about my father who had died thirty years earlier. She’d gone on to figure out how to live alone, how to parent alone, how to fall in love again, and have a wonderfully happy second marriage. Was her grief in that moment of remembering “stale grief?” We need more words for grief!

Words help us make sense of the world. They help us see similarities and differences. They help us understand ourselves and others. “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel–it is, before all, to make you see,” wrote noted author Joseph Conrad. How can I understand, or help others understand, when I can’t find the words?

Do we not have more words for grief because the English are not ones to be comfortable around grief, don’t really want to talk or hear about it?

I was curious about words associated with grief in different cultures. In Persian, the word for grief is also the word for regret and the two emotions are seen as similar. In a particular regional Russian language, the word for grief is more similar to anxiety. In Austronesian languages the word for grief is often paired not only with regret and anxiety but also with love. There is a Farsi word for sadness or grief that has a more physical connotation – ,Ghoseh – to have emptiness.  And a Japanese word, natsukashii, which is the sadness and longing for something that will never come again. Or even the German word, Mutterseelinallein, which is a feeling of being abandoned by everyone you love, literally translated as “your mother’s soul has left you.”

There are times when I feel grief, like today, that has more of a sense of anxiety of being alone in the world, and how to make/take the next steps alone. Other times I experience grief I would identify more as the deepest sense of loss – a major part of my life, myself, gone missing. Sometimes grief feels physical – like being sliced open by a machete. Sometimes it’s like a rush of love.

I experience grief at different intensities.  Sometimes it’s a tiny drip, sometimes it’s a fire hose unleashed.

And then there are the different relationships we’ve had with the lost – mother, daughter, wife, brother – and the quality of those relationships – loving, estranged, angry, complicated – that change the way we feel grief.

These feelings are not the same, even though we use the same word. I wonder if it would help the process make more sense, help us talk about it with more clarity, if we had more words for grief, words that would describe the nuances of grief.

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