Describing Grief

Jun 08, 2010

Describing Grief

By LISA BELKIN

More than once on Motherlode, grieving parents have written about the inadequacy of language in the face of their loss. There are no words to describe the pain of burying a child, and specifically there is no word to label their new, lifelong status. If you lose a spouse you are a widow, if you lose a parent you are an orphan, but what about when you lose a child? How do you name something you can not comprehend?

Jeffrey Zaslow wrote about this eloquently in the Wall Street Journal several years ago, noting that there are other gaps in the language as well:

The English language has about 450,000 commonly used words, but more may be needed. What to you call someone who has lost a sibling or had a miscarriage? Or a gay person whose partner has died? Or an elderly person who has lost every friend and relative? So many heartaches can’t be found in the dictionary.


Katie Allison Granju explored the same linguistic void on Babble.com just yesterday. As many readers here know, her son Henry died last week after a month long hospitalization for injuries suffered after what appears to have been a brutal beating and subsequent drug overdose. She writes:

What do you call a mother who has lost her child? If my husband had died, I would be a widow, but what am I now? I was the mother of two sons and two daughters — with another little girl on the way. That’s how I define myself. Now what am I? Without Henry — to whom I have been “mama” as long as I’ve been an adult myself — who am I? Who will I be in the future when the unholy, unbearable pain that now rips and tears at me every waking minute fades into a more chronic, dull, lifetime ache?

I know that I will be different — forever. Just … different.  I can tell you already that losing my child is an experience so profoundly disorienting that I suddenly feel like a Martian among humans.

Yes, I have been rerouted to Mars. And there doesn’t appear to be quite enough air up here.

In the comments on her blog someone left a link to an essay on the website of the Hospice Foundation of America by Karla FC Holloway, an outspoken professor of English and Law at Duke University and the author of “Passed On: African American Mourning Stories.” She has also lost a son, who died at 22 while trying escape from prison, where he was serving time for a brutal rape.

It was a reprint of an essay Holloway wrote for Memorial Day last year, reflecting on a Chinese saying that “the grey haired should not bury the black haired.” A parent burying a child, she writes, “is an offense to the natural order of things.”

Memorial Day, set aside to mourn those who died too young, is a yearly reminder that this grief has no name. But, she writes:

It extends beyond war. We needed a name because of what happened at Columbine and Virginia Tech, for when a child is found beneath the rubble of an earthquake, or for dusty children who starve to death in Darfur. Our numbers grow daily — with drive-bys and carelessness, with genocides, and accidents, illnesses and suicide.

The word we are looking for, she says, “must be a quiet word, like our grief, but clear in its claim.” The word “widow,” which means “empty” in Sanskrit, is such a word, and that same language, she suggests, provides another for us to borrow: “vilomah.” This means “against a natural order,” she writes. “As in, the grey haired should not bury those with black hair. As in our children should not precede us in death.”

“The difference between today’s grief and tomorrow’s,” she concludes, “is that now there is a name. Vilomah. A parent whose child has died.”


Comments

Barb Franzen on 06/10/2010
Should i lose my one son...my grief would be bottomless and I Vilmah,but what was I when my mother took her life when I was 16 and we were having words? It was Dec.23rd, and I loved her.


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