language and grief: pain is a complete sentence.

Incessant questions in the first months of grief are so common. People want to know how you are, what “this” is like for you. People need to talk about details and practical matters, they want to know what you’re going to do now, or do next week, or next month. People want you to talk about what’s going on, process it, talk talk talk talk talk.

And the thing is, words are really useless. When you are early in your grief, when the world has just newly exploded, words are always going to be too far removed, too far away, to make much sense. Or even, frankly, to matter much at all. 

Pain is a complete sentence. One guttural, visceral sound.

When you are stunned and reverberating, gaping at the hole ripped in the universe – language can’t touch that place at all. Poetry might come close. But that howling center, the vast pain – it is, itself, a complete sentence. The black hole of language.

Now clearly, I love words. But there is a remove in words, a distance between the reality in your heart, of your heart, and the words we use to talk about all that. You know, a lot of spiritual traditions acknowledge that the words they use to describe source, or god, or love are only tiny things that point to what is larger and un-nameable.

And pain is like that.

You can’t accurately describe your pain in words. You can’t convey how much is changed, or wrong, or shaken. Not so anyone else will get it. Not so anyone else can enter it with you. But that is so often what people want of us: to know what it’s like to be us. To know what it’s like to be you.

Words are wonderful things, but they are always going to be too small. Too small for grief, too small for love. And being asked to describe it, to put words and names on what is visceral and deep and beyond that front part of the brain – that is not always a kindness.

I know for me, words never stopped. Even though I stopped speaking to others for very long periods of time, my mind still entered endless dialogue. The best I could do for myself was to hang around plants and animals, rather than other speaking humans. I often felt that if I opened my mouth, if I tried to put words to this, I would only end up explaining or defending myself. I just couldn’t keep talking that way. Removed from what was real. Watching myself talk.

I needed to find those places of outer quiet. Those places where no one asked me for words. Those places where no one needed that empty gesture of words formed in some part of my brain that could still lift up its head (so to speak), so to speak.

And I’m telling you this, now, so that if you are there, if you are there in that stunning silent, howling void of visceral pain where words are stupid and useless and annoying and small, I’m telling you this so that you know: you are sane. You are normal. This is the deeper place, a place beyond words. When that is where you live, those too small words of others are going to grate and chafe. Irritation makes sense. A deep need for the absence of words makes sense.

You are pared down.

That pain at your core – it is a complete sentence. All other words just point to that.