Forgotten Synonyms for Grief

Forgotten Synonyms for Grief

Forgotten Synonyms for Grief 1080 1080 Kirsten Reneau

“We admit that we are like apes, but we seldom realize that we are apes” – Richard Dawkins

Want (verb). From Old Norse, vanta, “to lack.”

Meaning: to not have.
Meaning: if there is a want, it must mean there is a lack.
Meaning: Wanting someone who will never exist again means there is a hole in the fabric of the space.
Meaning: I learn I must live with the emptiness in my chest the way the universe learns to live with black holes.

Example: I want a dog for years before I actually get one. The lack of an animal in my house becomes more pressing when I run away from my hometown for grad school. At least, it feels like running away, perhaps because I had never lived more than 45 minutes from my parents before. I leave because I realize that I want more than a life that feels like it is slipping through my fingers, wasting all my time being sad over men and drinking in basement bars. Home is too small and I want to burst out of it, do something dramatic and big. But change is hard, even if you know it’s supposed to be good in the long run.

It is the first time I live in a place where I am not related to at least three other residents, and I am deeply lonely in my one-bedroom apartment with its high ceilings and tall windows that make me feel naked and vulnerable. I spend most of my time alone, talking into the air.

It feels empty in a way I cannot fill with art or furniture, and I spend the nights I am not in class avoiding going home. I think of a man I once called a brother, dead for years now. I see Dillon often, a mirage on every motorcycle, and have nightmares of the day he crashed. I listen to bluegrass music, songs that remind me of home, often listening to an old recording of Dillon trying to play “Ole Slew Foot,” always two beats too slow. I write frantic letters to him but burn them on the front porch before I ever finish one. I feel like I am searching for something, without knowing what it is.

A few weeks after what would have been Dillon’s birthday, I decide on a whim to finally get a dog. I go to the shelter hoping for a senior pet that I can make comfortable for a few years. Instead, I leave with a puppy who shakes in the concrete kennel. The shelter volunteers tell me she has recently been split up from her sister, and I am drawn to her in ways I can’t explain.

After I take her into my home, she is sick for days. Kennel cough, the vet tells me when I rush her in, terrified I have done something fatally wrong. Nothing serious.

I do not believe her. My dog avoids me at first, hides under my couch as I try to coax her out with food. When she does eat, she throws up. She is already small, no more than twelve pounds, and I worry she will continue to shrink until she disappears. I am convinced she is not sick from kennel cough but rather from the brokenhearted ache that comes from being left behind, and I become irrationally terrified she will die on my watch. I get scared to leave my house longer than a trip to the grocery store.

The first night she joins me in my bed, I lay awake with my hands cupped around her ribs. Her fur is fine and soft and through her skin I can outline the delicate bones that hold her together. Her breathing is shallow, and I realize how much I love her, this small creature who knows nothing of me except that I am all she has now. It is terrifying, to love something so much and be aware that it could all shatter.

Example: In 1983, Koko the gorilla asked for a kitten for Christmas. When she was given a stuffed animal instead, she was aware of the implication that it was not real. She would not play with it and continued to sign “SAD” over and over again until her birthday in July. It was then that she was able to pick from a litter of abandoned kittens, take one for her own. She chose a grey male Manx, named him “All Ball” and nurtured him as if he was a baby gorilla. That is, with tenderness. That is, she cared for him.

Later that year, All Ball escaped and was hit by a car. When Koko was told that her cat was dead, she signed “BAD, SAD, BAD” and “FROWN, CRY, FROWN, SAD, TROUBLE.” Her custodian later noted that he could hear her making sounds similar to human weeping. Gorillas cannot cry. But she wanted to.

Testify (verb). From Late Middle English, testis, “a witness.”
Meaning: give evidence as a witness.
Meaning: To be there.
Meaning: To be able to share.

Example: Koko taught Michael, another Gorilla, several signs. They became best friends, painting together, listening to music, telling stories. They both used the signs ‘stink’ for ‘flowers’, and ‘lip’ for ‘girl.’

Michael’s mother was killed by poachers. When he was asked what he remembered about her, he told them this of her death: “SQUASH MEAT GORILLA. MOUTH TOOTH. CRY SHARP-NOISE LOUD. BAD THINK-TROUBLE LOOK-FACE. CUT/NECK LIP (GIRL) HOLE.”

Example: Dillon died in a motorcycle accident. The embalming fluid would have flushed out the yellow undertones of his skin, turned him too white. I had seen it in corpses before. He flipped the motorcycle and met the cement face first. Or maybe there wouldn’t have been a body there at all. Perhaps instead there was an urn with him and his teeth and his hair all reduced to ash and earth. I don’t know. I didn’t go to Dillon’s funeral, so I never found out.

Lack (noun). From Middle Dutch laken, or “lack, blame.”

Meaning: the state of being without.
Meaning: If you were to yell into a black hole, would anyone hear it?
Meaning: Holes occupy an unusual position in human psychology. We tend to refer to them as tangible and countable objects, something that exists, when in fact holes are an absence of something else.

Example: I have attended many funerals in my life, most of them for people younger than me and nearly all of them men. Funerals give me an itch in a way I know they are not supposed to. I prefer to keep my griefs quiet and internal; comfort makes me uncomfortable. When I stand next to fellow mourners, the heat of my palms pressed to a stranger’s as we clasp our hands together in silence, I know I should feel something communal. But I only ever find my own lonely heartbeat in my throat.

Funerals themselves do not make me sad– I feel that deep, terrible grief at random times, like in the middle of the grocery store years later, when I see a man with Dillon’s hair, dark and curly, and forget how to breathe in the dog food aisle.

Funerals make me lonely. They remind of the original desire carved into my psyche, to always want another breath, then another, then another. It seems like I am in a constant state of desire; I am a stretched arm, an open palm, a hungry mouth. I have tried to fill the hole in my chest with new clothes, with food, with wine, with sex, with liquor, with work, with drugs. I have tried to make myself satisfied by these things. I feel that longing to be full more acutely at funerals than I do anywhere else.

The day Dillon’s funeral happened, I drove up to the closest thing we had for a city and went to a series of dive bars with strangers, trying to drink enough to make me forget what it is I’m missing. I dance and laugh at bad jokes. I smoke an entire pack of cigarettes, one after the other, tasting the nicotine on my tongue before I swallow it. I want to feel alive, shimmeringly, painfully alive. It felt selfish because it was. When we grieve, is it for them? Or for us, who now have to live without them? It didn’t matter then. I had never felt so absolutely alone before, convinced that I could disappear in the night and have no one notice.

Example: Dorothy was 30 when she died at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Centre in eastern Cameroon. Workers knew she was an important figure to the other resident chimpanzees, but weren’t sure how they would perceive her death, or if they would at all. The 25 other chimps were famously loud and boisterous, as easily excitable as children.

When workers went to get Dorothy, they wrapped her corpse in a blanket and placed her in a wheelbarrow. As they rolled by, all the other chimps stood at the edge of the perimeter and watched in complete and total silence, their hands on their brethren’s shoulders. They comforted one another. They reminded each other that they were still alive. They made note of the absent space she left behind.

Need (verb). Coming from Middle English nede, originally it is “violence, force.”

Meaning: what is required, wanted, or desired.
Meaning: to be so desperate for something, it feels like a violence.

Example: Washoe the chimp had a caretaker named Kat, who was pregnant one day and then not the next. She took time off, and when she returned to Washoe, the chimp was upset that she had been abandoned. Kat decided to tell Washoe the truth, signing, “MY BABY DIED.”

Washoe had lost two infants herself – the first to a heart defect shortly after birth, a second, a staph infection when they were two months old. The second baby was named Sequoyah.

What did Washoe feel then?

What does it mean to share your grief?

Example: After I see the ghost of Dillon in the supermarket, I leave all my groceries in the cart in the middle of the aisle. I slip out to my car and curl my body forward, my head on my knees. I don’t know how long I live like this – maybe a few minutes, maybe an hour. Time becomes insulated and still. I do not cry; I relearn how to breathe in silence. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out.

How do we survive grief so terrible it feels like a razor in your stomach, like looking over the edge of the universe? We do it for the others that need us. I drive home and greet my dog at the door. I turn the radio is on and Johnny and June Cash sing “Ole Slew Foot” to me, and I laugh so hard I start crying and my dog starts barking, and then it is just one noise, both of us trying to say something without words or language but in how intensely we feel everything.

Example: Washoe turned to Kat. She brought her finger up to her eye and dragged it down her cheek, signing “CRY,” signaling where the tears should have been. I imagine it was quiet as they focused on their breathing, that there was a comfort between them as it became one universal animal sound.

Header photograph © Tara K. Shepersky.

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