Feelings We Need Words For

Nov. 21, 2011
She often wonders if she has enough to say to give the writing thing a go.

English is so bad at describing what it means to grieve. We use words like bereft or bitter or sad, or we say we have a broken heart. But none of these really get at the nuances. The words don’t seem to capture each exquisitely painful feeling.

For example, there should be a word, maybe borrowed from German, a language so good at expressing complicated mental states in a single lengthy word with many chewy consonants, for when you miss someone so incredibly, achingly much, when that person pervades every thought, every interaction, every waking moment, but you also loathe them. Because they treated you badly, or because they were too weak to be honest with you. Because you were betrayed. And because you loathe them, you hate yourself for missing that person so intensely. For missing the laughter they inspired; for wishing for the easy intimacy that you built. You hate yourself for knowing that they aren’t worth so much sadness, that such an outlay of mental energy is entirely wasted and useless. But you feel it anyway, and you cry in the shower or into your pillow or anytime something reminds you of that person. Which is all the time. There should definitely be a word for that.

There should also be a word, maybe from the French, who do existentialism so well, for the feeling of disconnection you cultivate when you walk through the streets with your headphones on, sad songs blasting into your ears loudly enough that you can pretend you are alone. You pass by other people almost without seeing them, since you can’t hear them. You walk by shops and offices on the sidewalk, going somewhere or maybe not going anywhere in particular, feeling like the music in your ears is a soundtrack to your sadness. This song makes you think of that person; that song comes close to capturing how lonely you are without them. You isolate yourself physically because you feel so isolated inside; surrounded by people, you are still alone, because you have been abandoned by that one person who made you feel somehow less alone.

English is also missing a word for how it feels when you know that person has moved on so quickly. When you find out you weren’t as important as you thought you were. When you realize that they were acting selfishly instead of caring about you, or when you understand that you didn’t really come into it at all for them, they were just doing what they needed to do. Maybe it should come from Russian, because the Russians know despair. You thought you were finally getting over them.  You could almost go an hour, if you were busy with something really important, without thinking about them. Then you see a Facebook post or hear some gossip from mutual friends, and you realize you weren’t over it. Not even close. You realize you were still holding out hope that you would get back together, that there would be some way to repair the damage, to be happy again. When that hope is crushed, the fragile Jenga tower of your life tumbles down. There should be a word for that kind of defeat.

And there should also be a word for when you’re just so tired of being sad, for when you are tired of being lonely but somehow don’t know how to stop. When you’re tired of crying, tired of thinking about that person, tired of missing them. You can’t yet make yourself recognize all the bad things; remembering how you’ve been done wrong doesn’t help. But the hurt over the good things, the things you still miss so much, is a dull twist in your stomach now, instead of a gaping hole in your chest. You don’t know how to turn that off, don’t remember how to be happy. But you sort of remember happiness as it existed before that person, and you want that so desperately. You want to stop this misery that drags at your ankles and eyes and insides. You know it will take time, but sometimes just the fact of being tired of crying makes you cry. Maybe we could co-opt a word from Japanese for that, since melancholy is a specialty of theirs.

There should be an English word for all these feelings of grief. And I desperately wish they existed now, just so I could tell you, next time you ask, how I’m doing in only four words, instead of all these. TC mark

image – Helga Weber

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