Dan's kitchenIt has been a terrible few weeks and I am writing this blog in the saddest of circumstances. At the end of February my wife and I were completely thrown by the death of our eldest son.
It has all been very painful, but one way that has helped us deal with our grief has been by talking through the events with those close to us. To a large extent this has been invaluable, but there have been problems.
Often during exchanges I simply could not express myself fully. This was not because I was losing my mind, rather it was because either I could not find words that matched my feelings, or because I didn’t actually know what I felt anyway. Accordingly there was a risk that the words I used might distort, or even trivialise my emotions. All this would have been private to me but it was something I could have done without.

Given the circumstances, my difficulty in expressing myself was probably inevitable and three possible causes come to mind. First, a legacy from the way I learned to use words when a scientist/doctor. Second, the limitations of the English language. Third, the inability of my conscious part to fathom out the vagaries of its visceral, unconscious, counterpart. To these I should add my own limitations when trying to communicate – I am certainly no poet and no orator.

Although I now often write about my feelings, my 40-year apprenticeship in writing and speaking scientifically has left a lasting legacy. The scientific style is very specialised, presentation is matter-of-fact; words are used precisely with meanings as defined in dictionaries or reference works; sentences are expected to convey facts or ideas without emotion; and there should be no space for ambiguity or misinterpretation.

Daniel died with no warning and with no time to say goodbye. In cold medical terms a large blood clot floated up to his lungs and there completely blocked off his circulation. It would have killed him instantaneously. It was very important for us to know all this but the dominant issue for us both was not the physiological process, but the overpowering emotions. And here was the problem – at least for me. While words like ‘sad’, ‘miserable’, ‘tearful’ and ‘distraught’, all worked well, others presented difficulties, as for instance when I described myself as feeling ‘hollow’ and ‘numb’. Although these words certainly conveyed something, that something was indefinable in real terms and possibly misleading. When it came to sadness, I was full to overflowing, so how could I be hollow? When it came to sensitivity I was actually ultra sensitive, bursting into tears when Dan’s name was mentioned, so how could I be numb? In all honesty, my true feelings were actually indescribable and my years of scientific precision were sorely challenged.

One problem is that I, like many others, put thoughts into words in order to allow myself to better understand what is going on. Words allow me to tease out, to crystallise, those thoughts. On this occasion the process was compromised because words failed me.

Of my subconscious ‘sentiments’, some were so visceral that they were unknown to me. They certainly by-passed my thinking bits. So when I cried on touching his favourite jumper or on hearing his favourite aria, and as I still do now each time I see him in my mind’ eye as he left after Christmas and turned to wave goodbye, my wiring circumnavigates the conscious bits and manages directly to play on very deep seated emotions. And because of their circuitous route, they are indescribable. Telling people exactly what is going on is impossible. Nevertheless, these feelings are just as powerful; but simply they ‘do their own thing’.

But luckily, just as there have been unspoken triggers of sadness, there have been other triggers that have given me great feelings of warmth. In the weeks before Dan died he would talk with pride about the colours he had chosen for the walls and ceilings in his newly decorated house. I saw them for the first time just before his funeral and realised just how right he was – so adventurous, so beautiful, even so courageous. In his kitchen, simply looking around, he would have been happy. So now, simply looking at the photo I took, gives me warmth that no words can get near. And I imagine these evocative images, will, without a word being spoken, be with me forever, as they were for Rohan’s grandmother who, at 85, burst into tears on hearing a particular World War One tune that reminded her of the loss of her soldier/brother in the trenches.

It has been a wretched few weeks, and I wish I could have described my feelings better both to myself and to others. I have had to – have wanted to – speak or write but I do wish it had been easier. Be that as it may, no words, however precise, could undo what has happened, although a little more precision might have helped.

4 thoughts on “When words failed me

  1. Joe, I read your latest article in Greyhares with great sadness and a lot of admiration for your courage in writing about your feelings. As you so rightly say, words seem inadequate to sum up one’s emotions at such a time. An email doesn’t really seem to be the correct means of communicating in such circumstances but I did want to let you know that I’m thinking of you. I hope this doesn’t sound trite, I was very moved by your writing. Norma. PS Keep writing.

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  2. This misty window into your despair has given me extra vocabulary which I shall save – hoping I never need it. Thank you for these word thoughts.

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  3. Dear Joe, I only tonight found your sorrowful article on “language”, following the death of your son Daniel. You are quite right in what you say about the inadequacy of language to communicate the depth of sorrow that is felt when someone dear to you dies. For you, and your wife, the difficulty is even greater because the loss of a child is the greatest loss. It seems so cruel, for a parent the order is all wrong. I do not believe your inability to express your pain and loss was due to your scientific background, in fact your article conveyed your grief most movingly. Such loss cannot really be articulated, it goes too deep.
    Kath’s son Matthew died very suddenly at 15 months old. I was with her to witness her loss and sorrow and remember well how I could not find words to comfort her! That was thirty years ago. I was so pleased when I stumbled across your Gray Hares Blog and sent my brief note. I feel so sad to now hear of your great loss. Please accept my deepest sympathy, and also Kath’s kind thoughts from her home in Sydney, Australia. We spoke of you tonight, on the phone, and remembered our delightful times in Sete, later in London and Manchester, and felt very very sad to think that you should have to suffer the sudden death of your son, Daniel. We are both thinking of you. Kath and Babs xx

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