On loss and the language of loss

Earlier this month, on the 17 March 2023, my wonderful father-in-law, Dr Laurence Bellamy, died. His death wasn’t completely unexpected – he’d been seriously ill for the past six weeks or so – but, still, it was a shock. A steady and supportive constant in my life had suddenly gone.

Photo by Teika Marija Smits

Unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about loss and the way we talk about grief and bereavement. The language that we use – phrases such as “I’m sorry for your loss” or “my condolences” – seem bald, inadequate. And every time a friend loses a loved one, I cringe at my use of them. I want to say more; to express how my heart aches for them, how I long to offer them comfort, an escape from the pain, although I know that comfort is an elusive phantom, a ghostly resident of the past. It is absent from the now. It appears to be absent from the future. I wish to say all that and yet I am still struck by the inadequacy of even those words. I reach for stock phrases and hope that the bereaved individual understands that I care. That my heart goes out to them.

Yet, being on the other end of those well-wishes feels different. Of course those words aren’t enough. And yet, conversely, they are enough. I know people care. And I’ve appreciated every single message of condolence. For me, right now, silence feels worse.

Then there’s the language we use when talking about the person who has died; to convey all that they were and all that they did in their life. Soon after Larry died I wrote a poem about him. And, later, as my husband talked to me about funeral plans and what was to go in the eulogy – the briefest of biographies of a person’s life – I was once again struck by the inadequacy of words.

Sometimes hugs are the only things that help.

I suppose the inadequacy of words feels more acute to me because I’m a writer; because I love language in all its textures, the way it can be moulded and played with to such great effect. To think of language as inadequate comes as a blow. An indignity. It also frightens me, makes me think that everything I write is pointless. Yet going down that train of thought leads to despair. To a lack of creativity. Nothingness. I don’t want nothingness. I want the sweet richness of everything.

Still, as welcome as hugs and tears are, they are impermanent. Words aren’t. They can be trapped in pixels and paper – both highly durable. Which is why I guess so many people want to write a book. They want to create something permanent, something that will outlive them. This desire to put something so uniquely “theirs” out into the world in the hope that it will connect with others, and go on connecting with others after their death, is very human. And as decades and then centuries pass, as generations are born and die and are forgotten, perhaps our words will be all that we leave behind. Inadequate as they are.

But maybe nature, in all its wisdom, understands this, which is why its language is one of repetition – its seasons on loop. I survive, it says, in the withered, inadequate bulb which appears to be dead; its biography already written in the leaves and flowers to come. I survive. Perhaps us humans complicate things. Perhaps this statement is enough.

6 thoughts on “On loss and the language of loss”

  1. It’s so true, words are totally inadequate to convey grief or sympathy, and the temptation when others have lost someone is to be silent, because using inadequate phrases feels like an insult to the bereaved. But thank you for reminding us that it’s important that we do speak, to show we care. I’m so sorry that you and Tom and the children have lost such a beloved member of the family. xx

    1. Teika Marija Smits

      You’re right, Lynden. I know that, often, silence doesn’t mean that people don’t care – just that there aren’t quite the right words to express what they want to say. But I’m also a big fan of E.M. Forster’s idea to “only connect”, even if the phrases we use are somewhat clunky. Many thanks for your kind words. xx

  2. This really put into words one of life’s conflicts for me. Having dealt with the death of close family members at a young age, it was the lack of language that meant something to me that encouraged me to find my own and make sense of it. People want to say ‘the right thing’ but are often so inhibited by their fear of the opposite that they say nothing. Thank you for this, may you continue to find comfort in your own words.

    1. Teika Marija Smits

      Dear Deb, many thanks for your comment. My father died when I was 15 and I found that expressing myself through poetry was very valuable to me in processing my loss. It’s good to hear that you, too, found your own words to express your loss, and that you gained solace from them. And as you say, sometimes people really do want to say something kind but just can’t find the right words. Thank you again for stopping by and connecting. I really do appreciate it.

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