I’ve often wondered if our language shapes our perceptions of the world, or if our perception of the world around us shapes the language we use to express it. So Eskimos have dozens of words to describe snow, and Germans have a special word to describe taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others, and English speakers have nearly 3,000 synonyms at their disposal to describe being drunk. Yet there are words we use over and over to describe a vastly different range of feelings and experiences.
Like “love,” for example.
I can say “I love chocolate.” “I love fall and wearing cozy sweaters.” “I love my family.” “I love my son Charlie.”
These are all acceptable uses of the word, and anyone who hears me say them will understand that they represent different kids of love. No one expects that my feelings for chocolate are the same as my feelings for my family or my son.
“I love my son Charlie.” Present tense. English offers me two options here to allow for the fact of his death—I can either change the tense of the verb or add an adjective. “I loved my son Charlie.” “I love my dead son Charlie.” Both are true.
I choose, “I love my dead son Charlie.” Just because he is gone, doesn’t mean I have stopped loving him. I still love him as fiercely as ever. It’s just that I have no where to put that love any more. I cannot hug him, or laugh at his jokes, or listen to him tell me all about his latest game. I can’t make his favorite meal, or hold him when he’s frustrated. All of the endless, limitless love I have for my amazing son has no focus anymore.
I know of other people who have recently lost someone they love. Some of them have started foundations designed to help grieving parents. Some hold fundraisers with the proceeds going to disease research. Others founded companies with a goal of making the world a more positive place. They all exist because of how much the founders loved the person they lost. They discovered that, as the saying goes, grief is just love with no place to go. So they chose to channel that grief, that love. They found a new focus. Many experts on grief say that this is the healthiest way to cope with enormous loss.
An enormous loss like losing a son. One of the hardest parts of loving Charlie after his death is the loss of possibility. I always thought he would do something amazing when he got older, with his fierce intelligence and enormous creativity. I never talked about it like that to him, of course–no kid needs that pressure—but I tried to encourage him to think about all the possibilities open to him. He, quite literally, could have done or been just about anything. It was exciting (and a bit daunting) as a parent to foster his gifts in a positive way.
Now, that’s gone. All that possibility is gone from this world.
In the wake of his death, so many people found special, meaningful ways to honor Charlie. Friends donated books to our library, planted trees, and sponsored children’s programs. Our family funded scholarships to Camp Invention, one of his favorite activities. Each of these was a way to keep the light that was Charlie burning a bit longer.
But I haven’t found a focus, try as I might. I still love my son, but he isn’t here any more. My love pours out of me and echoes through the universe, turning into waves of dark grief because his light is missing. And there isn’t a word for that in any language.