The phone rings and I do not know what I want more desperately: for them to pick up or to get their voicemail. The prospect of leaving a message allows me to avoid hearing their reaction. But what kind of voicemail could I possibly leave? Is this even something you can leave a voicemail about, or should I text them to call me back? And when I get them on the phone, how do I start? Are you busy? or I have some hard news.
In the wake of my friend’s death, I find myself focused on the words to say. How should I describe it? “Passed,” “gone,” or “no longer with us” all feel like a laughable attempt at making sharp edges seem like a soft place to land. Yet “dead” feels callous, cold, impossibly real. Dead. She’s dead. My friend is dead.
I watch my newsfeed fill with her pictures; I read captions containing her impact. I wonder if I should write something, if I should share in this modern way of grieving. I wonder, How can I possibly? How can I sum up her life in a few sentences? How can I cram all our memories in a short paragraph? How can I talk about a friend in the past tense?
And then, at the same time, I wonder, How can I possibly not?
I have been avoiding it for months, but I finally bring myself to clean out the box that has haunted me from the hall closet. It is laughably small, with “Wedding” scrawled across the side messily. When I wrote that label, I thought it would be the first of many boxes. When I wrote that label, the world had not yet been forced to turn its back on large gatherings, and we hadn’t even considered marriage would come without a wedding.
I hold our save the date cards in one hand. July 18 held so much promise back in January, when we spent far too many hours designing our own to save some money. I pick up our “change” the date cards in my other hand. October seemed like such a safer alternative in May. That time around we bought an Esty template to make things easier, because you will do anything to make life a little easier the week you cancel your wedding.
I take a deep breath and tell myself they are just paper, and yet I still cannot bring myself to throw them all away. I save a few of each and watch as the trash can lid swings shut over the rest. Two weddings cancelled in one year and I do not know how to describe the feeling. I don’t know if there is a way to describe it. Is there a language for grief? Because I cannot imagine one that would do it justice.
I cannot imagine there are words to adequately sum up the way my chest tightens when I think of pictures of me and my best friends, me in white and them in sage green dresses, that I will never get. I cannot imagine crafting a sentence that can explain the longing I have to sit on our green love seat with champagne in hand, listening to speeches about us from our favorite people.
Are there words for the sharp intake of breath when I scroll through Netflix and land on The West Wing, her favorite show? Are there words for wishing we had more pictures together, knowing I no longer have the chance to take any more? Can there possibly be any words for the feeling as my phone reminds me two years ago we were in Portland together? Can I explain the ache of looking back on memories I am the only one left to remember?
I long for a language for this grief. The tightening of my throat, the holding back tears, the way it becomes hard to breath when something happens I was not expecting: her name on Twitter, another wedding in my newsfeed, a careless comment about the pandemic. All I want most is to connect with others, let them into this frightening, lonely world of pain I find myself in, but it feels impossible to even come close to describing it. I wrap the grief tightly around me like the cozy blanket on our couch. If I feel it, if I really feel it, maybe it will get less heavy. Maybe it will get easier. Maybe I will eventually become fluent in this mysterious language.
Four hundred and five new Covid cases in my city today. Over 207,000 deaths in America this year. But the language of grief is not numbers. The numbers don’t count how many days I have picked up my phone to text her or scrolled through pictures of us. I cannot count the people who knew her and knew of her and knew her intimately; I cannot measure the width of the hole she left in our community. I cannot count the decibels of her laughter (although the number was high)—all I know is I miss it.
The numbers I can count don’t help either. I can count the number of emails exchanged with vendors. I can tell you exactly how expensive it is to cancel a July wedding. But the language of grief is not mathematics—I cannot sum up the loneliness and disappointment we experienced. I can count the number of people I told our second wedding of the year was also cancelled, but I cannot calculate the exhaustion of it all. I cannot add together the joy of getting married with the pain we felt that day.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists nine synonyms for “grief,” but the language I am looking for is not words. Not even profanities. I have tried them all.
I don't know if we'll ever be able to speak grief, I am beginning to believe we will only ever feel it.