Knowing what to say to bereaved parents can be extraordinarily difficult. Language often fails in this context because of unfamiliarity with death, the decline of mourning rituals, and an increasingly secular, urban and mobile society. Language can also fail when we try to describe a bereaved person. Phrases commonly used, such as ‘breaking down’ and ‘losing control’, are those used in describing dysfunctional machinery. Grief is spoken of in the same terms as an illness from which people ‘recover’ and ‘return to normal’.
The use of such language has an inhibiting effect on the expression of grief in a culture where showing strength in times of grief is admired. ‘How are you bearing up?’ is a common inquiry, yet the Collins Dictionary defines ‘bear up’ to mean ‘endure cheerfully’. Parents whose children have died do not ‘endure cheerfully’ or return to what they once considered ‘normal’, as this suggests a state of being that existed before the child died. The death of a child means part of the parent also dies. For a mother, carrying a child through pregnancy, giving birth to it, raising it through infancy, childhood and perhaps to adulthood requires an enormous investment in love, time and energy. It is through this experience that a woman becomes a mother and if the child dies, it is the mother, not just the woman, who is bereaved.
To describe the bereaved status of a wife, husband or child, the words widow, widower and orphan are used. Unlike some cultures, such as Israeli, there are no words in the English language to describe a bereaved parent, yet parenthood is an existential fact, not merely a sociological description.
Evelyn Waugh in his satirical novel, The Loved One (1948), and Jessica Mitford, in her explicit exposé on the American funeral industry, The American Way of Death (1963), describe the way traditionally direct terminology referring to the dead and their disposal was supplanted by funeral directors with invented, indirect vocabulary. Such words as funeral director for undertaker, caskets for coffins, floral tributes for flowers, loved one for corpse, slumber room for laying-out room, cremains for ashes and memorial park for cemetery or graveyard, became the norm in the USA. In the decades since Mitford’s book was published, many of these terms have been adopted by other Western countries.
The vocabulary used in Western societies to talk about dying is often euphemistic and clichéd. Such euphemism is exemplified in the Death Notices columns of local newspapers. Instead of the unambiguous ‘died’ we see ‘passed away’, ‘peacefully at home’, ‘suddenly in hospital …’, ‘slipped quietly away’, ‘goodbye …’, ‘gone to Heaven,’ ‘laid to rest’.
Avoidance of direct language is also found in condolence cards which show ethereal scenes and messages such as ‘time will heal’, ‘we are sorry for your loss’, and ‘your loved one is in a better place’. Many of these cards reflect Western society’s traditional stance on the correct way to grieve, which is to move through stages, let go and move on, while cards acknowledging the first year anniversary or beyond do not exist. Platitudes and expressions of divine will such as ‘It’s God’s will’ and ‘God loved your child so much he took her back’ are extremely unhelpful.
The difficulty the non-bereaved sometimes have in empathising with the bereaved is encapsulated in an article in the London Review of Books (2007) about the missing English girl Madeleine McCann, who was allegedly abducted at the age of four while on holiday in Portugal with her parents, Gerry and Kate McCann. The writer of the article, 2007 Man Booker prize winner Anne Enright, says:
I was angry at their failure to accept that their daughter was probably dead. I wanted them to grieve, which is to say, “go away”’.
This extraordinary statement is made worse by Enright’s lack of understanding about how grief may be expressed as she berates the demeanour of the McCanns during television interviews. ‘I find Gerry McCann’s need to influence the investigation more provoking than her flat sadness’. Callous though Enright’s statements appear, studies of bereaved parents (Dean et al., 2005; Grinyer, 2003; Riches & Dawson, 2000) have shown that those who have not undergone the emotional trauma of losing their child can never fully empathise with those who have.
While using unequivocal language may better acknowledge the finality of death, the enormity of experiencing the death of one’s child cannot adequately be conveyed within the limitations of spoken language. Grinyer’s studies, based on the written narratives of parents of young adult children with cancer, identify the difficulty parents have in finding words to speak of their experiences. Many bereaved parents use metaphor and simile as a mean of portraying their grief. Images of darkness, cold and ice, tsunamis and drowning are common. In Facing the Ultimate Loss: Coping with the Death of a Child (2004), Robert J. Marx and Susan Davidson describe the feelings of parents who confront the moment they no longer have a living child:
If it were a picture, there would be only darkness. If it were music, it would only be a cry of pain, or for some, a single chord in a minor key – a chord extending beyond our ability to endure it. But the loss of a child is not a painting – it is not music. It is the colour of our pain. It is the desperate cry of our emptiness.’
Dr Sandra Arnold lives in North Canterbury, New Zealand. She is the author of three books, including a memoir about the death of her daughter, Sing No Sad Songs. Sandra has a MLitt and PhD in Creative Writing from CQ University, Australia. Her short stories have been widely published and anthologised in New Zealand and internationally and she is the recipient of several awards including the 2014 Seresin Landfall University of Otago Press Writers Residency and the 2015 New Zealand Heritage Week Short Story Competition. She was shortlisted for the 2016 Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship. Her flash fiction won second place in the July 2016 The Short Story Flash500 Competition and the September 2016 Zero Flash Competition. She was long-listed in the 2016 Flash Frontier Competition, Highly Commended in the 2016 North & South Competition and was a Notable Contender in the 2016 Bristol Prize. Her flash fiction has been published in print and online journals. She has been nominated for The Best Small Fictions 2017 international anthology. She is currently working on a new novel and a collection of short stories and flash fiction. http://authors.org.nz/author/sandraarnold
Also by Sandra Arnold on Corpus: Navigating a Way Through Grief.