The Ubiquitous, Universal Language of Grief and Loss

By Emma Pearson

June 22, 2024

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

11 December 2023

A friend of mine, N.O, wrote me a note the other day. She said, “Emma – I read your post on LinkedIn about the death of one of the residents at the hospice and your thoughts about it. I appreciate that you speak and write about death as no-one around me talks about it – which is scary as it concerns us all eventually”.

Yes, it concerns us all eventually, and sometimes very suddenly.

Yesterday afternoon, Sunday, in a moment of unseasonably warm December weather, and while out cleaning the patio, I saw my neighbour’s youngest daughter leaving her mum’s house (the daughter is about my age, and my neighbour is about my parents’ age). I said, “Hey – how is your mum? I haven’t seen her for a few days”. And the daughter talked of how her mother had been taken into hospital 3 days earlier after “suddenly losing all sense of where she was, or what year it was”. It seems my neighbour’s sense of time was such that she was moving back and forth between 1941, her year of birth, to 1962, when she was a newly young mother, to 1982, when she was suddenly widowed after her husband went for a mountain walk.

We like to believe that such behaviour means that someone is “confused”, but perhaps my neighbour is the one who is more with it – for aren’t there continuing discussions about whether or not time is real or imagined – that time is a wholly human construct created so as to make sense of things. I have yet to read an article on the quantum physics definition of time that I genuinely understand, but this article is digestible.

I don’t know how things will be for my neighbour but it is unlikely she will be able to live unaided from now on. How life can change from one moment to another.

The day before this, Saturday, I received a WhatsApp message from Y, the Ukrainian woman who had stayed in my house with her family for a period of time during 2022 – starting just weeks after the fresh outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war. She and her family have been back home for a year now, but we are regularly in touch. I get videos of the kids, pictures of Y all dressed up and looking gorgeous, notes that they miss me and love me, questions about my pets, right alongside updates and videos of the sirens and bombings, lest we forget their country is at war. It’s a touching relationship. She writes in Ukrainian and translates it into English before sending… I write in English and translate into Ukrainian before sending… it means I can never simply re-read and understand a message I have sent her unless I re-translate it back into English. And forwards-and-backwards translation in Google Translate is not so great. But Google Translate does a good enough job, and I have become a dab hand at copy pasting messages across apps, even on my mobile.

But Saturday’s message was tough to read: Dear Emma, ​​I need your support so that I can support my family. My younger brother, the one in Germany, got divorced 6 months ago. He loved his wife very much, but there was betrayal. Yesterday, they had some unpleasant conversation, after which my brother recorded a farewell video. I could not listen to it to the end. He is not responding to my messages. I have not slept for two days. The police are looking for him. How should I be?

Oh my golly. My blood went cold. I took a few breaths and composed a note in English in Google Translate. Words to the effect of how hard it is to be in the “not knowing”. How being able to continue breathing is really the only thing she can do… and catching her mind when it goes to very dark places. To see the “not knowing” space as a temporary refuge. (I’d just been writing about that space as a potential haven of peace in my previous blogpost).

I know my words won’t have changed a thing, but they were all I had. She sent back some words, thanking me for my support and saying she was trying to remember to breathe.

And then, yesterday morning, another message. Just six words: Emma – he’s gone. He hanged himself.

And I knew that another earthquake or tsunami or bomb had gone off and done irreparable damage in another family’s life.

I wrote more words – for words are all I have from this great distance. If she takes time to write and translate, it’s the least I can do. Even knowing no words change a thing, there still need to be words, for worse than inadequate words is no words.

I felt into that space of just hearing about a suicide. It’s a sickening space. Even now, my breath gets so short and tight. So stuck. My legs turn to jelly. My heart pounds. My body slumps. Everything numbs.

I know that space well.

I know there will be guilt and shame, grief and sadness, blame and anger, numbness and excruciating pain.

I know that the former wife could lose out on being part of this family for ever more.

I know that any kids will lose their dad and much more – many more people – perhaps grandparents, perhaps aunts and uncles, perhaps cousins.

I know that in time, all they will have will be memories.

But for now – the only thing is to send love and peace and courage.

I am so very sorry for Y, for her family, for her brother, for everyone affected.

What a horror suicide is.
What a horror untimely death is.
What a horror illness is.
What a horror grief is.

All that pain generated.

And yet, the world goes on. Time spins forwards, backwards, and twists inside out.

The pain, the horror, the upheaval – none of it will even make a dent in Deep Universal Time terms.

Somehow we live, despite all the uncertainty. Despite all the damage. Despite all the pain.

Occasionally we are conscious and aware enough to remember how precious it all is.

I like to think that all this reflecting on death and grief and loss means that I might be a tad more “zen” when my next bit of devastatingly bad news come. But I know it won’t make a jot of difference.

We simply cannot prepare for this stuff.
We can just live each breath, each moment, each day, as appreciatively as possible. And hope we can still breathe when the lightning strikes.

Go gently, Y’s brother.

I am so very sorry for you, and all of you, and you all, and all of us.

About Emma Pearson

4 thoughts on “The Ubiquitous, Universal Language of Grief and Loss

  1. Dear Emma. Thank you for writing this amazing post. I have been putting off writing a note to the parents of a young man I know who died a month ago. I couldn’t find the “right words” and you reminded me that “even knowing no words change a thing, there still need to be words, for worse than inadequate words is no words”. I will send love and peace and courage. Thank you for helping me live each breath as appreciatively as possible. Sending you so much love today and every day.

    1. oh Nancy – I am so sorry for your friends and their son.
      No – there are no right words.
      And you, my darling know that more than most of us.
      And yet – a note, and live presence if you can manage it, even virtual, will matter. It doesn’t make a difference, but it matters. At least that is my sense.
      Go gently you too.

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