Mourning words that aren’t there

Dear the English language,

(This is already starting off badly. Should I say “Dear English Language,” as though you’re a person, or do I use the definite article, as you would normally in a sentence? Anyway.)

Big fan. Really. I’m the person who gets very angry over misused apostrophes. And lazy spelling. (Less so over fragments, apparently.) I rigorously defend you to everyone who says “But you knew what I MEANT!” Or perhaps, in those cases, I use you as a form of attack. The love for you is there, in any case.

Anyway, I want to register a complaint. I wish to protest the paucity of language around grief and loss.

The father of a long-time, very close girlfriend — a man who was also important to me, her parents being good friends with mine — passed away recently, and I was completely at a loss of what to say to her. I’m on the other side of the world to her so words are all I have, and they’re not cutting it. “I’m sorry” barely covers it, and “my condolences” is far too formal.

Where is the language to navigate that kind of loss? I don’t imagine you can fully empathise with that kind of grief until you have to go through it yourself. Trying to express empathy by discussing my own sense of loss at his passing seems self-indulgent. And are you doing more damage by talking about how special he was?

It probably goes a bit deeper than language, so it’s perhaps not fair to put the blame on words alone. Maybe it’s my WASPish upbringing. We aren’t good at emotions. We’re not raised to express them or revel in them. And being an atheist, there’s not a lot of comfort to give. It would be hollow for me to say “He’s somewhere better now.” I can say “The pain is over,” but what seems hopeful — or helpful — to me could well be bleak to another. And it still doesn’t cover the magnitude of the situation.

My struggle with words here could well be a function of a lucky life. I’ve been blessed to have not had to deal with death very often, so I lack experience in these situations. But does dealing more death make you better at talking about grief, or does it harden you to it? Or does it wring you out, making it an even worse topic to talk about? Or is it always the same… horribleness?

Perhaps I could educate myself about death more. There are books about it, I presume. But it’s not light reading, and it seems rather morbid to arm yourself with a series of phrases to deal with these situations. Sitting around expecting death can’t be a good way to live. And these situations are not professional performance reviews that can be dealt with using formulated sentences. The rawness of the situation demands more.

On the other hand, could it be that the impact one person can have can’t be summarised so simply, so no attempt has been made to put a life’s end so neatly into a box of letters? Memories of people can be such a vivid combination of sound, sight, touch, timing, state of being — elements that, as much as I love words, can’t all be perfectly captured in one paragraph, or page, or speech.

So to my friend, I still don’t really have words. Your dad was a wonderfully quirky and caring soul. I can hear his laugh. I’m sorry that he will miss so much of your life — I know the many things you wished he would be there for. It sucks.

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