“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
Experiencing the death of a loved one is not fact to be stated, a proposition that is an absolute truth. That a loved one has died IS a fact; that one has experienced the grief of the death is not a fact; it is a subjective experience unavailable to all people except the one in grief.
It is not an experience that is shared or something with which one can empathize. It is unique, personal, and subjective because it is larger than the fact of its happening; it taps into the recesses of the human experience that cannot be harnessed by our words or shared.
One may have in fact lost a father, a husband, a child, a friend, but the proposition “I lost my husband too” is simply that; it is a statement of fact, not a statement of truth because truth lies in experiencing the fact that was stated. Facts have no value. They just are. They do not denote a common experience; they denote an event. Since facts have no value facts do not denote the meaning of life. Real life, what we hold dear, what we care about, resides outside the facts. Ludwig Wittgenstein beautifully portrays this when he writes:
“The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world, everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value — and if there were, it would be of no value. If there is a value which is of value, it must lie outside all happening and being-so. For all happening and being-so is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie in the world, for otherwise this would again be accidental. It must lie outside the world.” (Tractatus 6.4)
Just because a fact has happened to us does not imply that we then know what that fact means for another.
Take a sunset as an example. We would agree that we can look at a sunset and see that it is beautiful, yet we would also agree that what makes it so is different for both of us. My impression of beauty is not imputed upon you or vice versa. The same could be said for joy or laughter. We allow that individuals can experience the same emotion while experiencing it differently…yet when it comes to grief we think that because we have experienced grief that you must also experience it as me.
Of all the emotions that refuses similarity, grief refuses it the most yet it is the one we tend to harmonize and try to share.
Grief is the most complex yet we have made it the simplest by the way we relate to those in it.
This is impossible. The truth of tragedy, beauty, grief or joy is they all transcend our ability to state them as facts and that is what makes them truthful; they are the stuff of real life because they transcend what can be thought, said or expressed. All of these things refuse thought. They refuse analogies whereby they can make sense. They refuse a universal experience even though they are all experienced universally.
Thus, of most human experience it is impossible to speak, to describe, to bring under the submission of our ideas. Wittgenstein held that a logical language can only deal with what is true, and unfortunately, what is true is precisely what evades language.
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”
This weekend, a month ago, he was at my little girls birthday party, wearing Minnie Mouse ears and being the world’s greatest grandad. Now, my father has been dead for 19 days. For the first time in my life, I experienced a sudden rupture of the world; a reversal of what is normal into an alternative reality in which the tragic has defined the common place. On Feb 27, around 5:30pm, I told my father “see ya later dad” for the final time as he left our office to go to a Karate Workout.
In the office that day we talked about what had to be done Tuesday if it didn’t rain, what the week would hold, and that I’d be able to help him with some things Wednesday. We talked about family history briefly, talked about repairs being done, and he asked me if he should go workout given he had a sore rib. We talked about mundane things. Regular things. We talked as if tomorrow was a given.
I was within minutes of leaving the office to do a monthly inventory at a store and someone stepped into my office and said “someone from Paul Huff called, they said your dad is having another episode.”
My father didn’t have “episodes.” I had no idea what that meant but I needed to find out.
I made one call, then ran out of the office to my car and sped down Peerless Rd to the gym where my father was working out. There, I encountered my 65 year old, 3rd degree black belt father, tied to a gurney, with a pulse and shallow breathing. This situation did not feel right; it wasn’t good. I was optimistic but my gut was beginning to sink knowing that the man I saw, my father, was on the edge of life…hanging on.
I grabbed my father’s bag from his instructor, threw it in my car and raced to the hospital to meet him there. Along the way, I stopped for gas (I had been on “E” all day in town and didn’t need to run out now). I called my wife, called my sister, tried calling my mother. Panic had overtaken my body but I was hopeful…until the paramedic van took much longer to go to the hospital than it should have. Finally, it appeared. I followed it to the hospital, called my pastor as I parked, ran to the ER, and was immediately taken to Consultation Room 1.
My pastor arrived within minutes and was with me in the room when the ER Doctor comes into the room and says “Hi my name is (X). This is not good. I am not optimistic. Your father is not responding to anything I am doing. Can you tell me something about his medical history that may help me?”
Astounded at the breathtaking bluntness, I had nothing. My dad took a small dose of cholesterol medication. That was it. I told him he was healthy, had a good recent physical, no known illnesses or disease. The Dr. left the room. I looked at my pastor and said “So, how many times have you gotten news that stark right out the gate?” He shook his head, “nada.” This doctor was not giving me any false hope.
About 10 minutes later, around 7:45, the Doc reentered the room, with long face and a low heart, he looked at me and said “I’m sorry, you father is gone.” At that moment, my entire heart sank to the ground, my heart raged, my mind confused, I screamed and yelled. I hit the wall, I fell against it and I sank to my knees as I wept for my father with a groaning and weeping I didn’t even know existed. I hugged my pastor and I cried. I squeezed him as hard as I could. My mom had entered the hospital as I heard the news. She heard me wail…and that is how she knew my dad was gone.
She entered the consultation room broken, weeping, herself in her hands. We embraced and shook our heads in disbelief. At 5:30 I talked to my dad. At 7:45 he was gone. Rupture. Disruption. Darkness. Confusion. Disbelief. Pain. Fear. Loss. Bottomless Sorrow. What is this new world?
At 9pm we were escorted back to the room where my father lay. There, lying in a hospital bed and covered with his sheet up to his chest, was the man who only hours earlier had been with us. Entering the room with me was my mother, sister and wife. My pastor was also there, along with my dad’s brother and his family.
We spent 3 hours with my deceased father, not wanting to leave him. We touched him, hugged him, we wept, we kissed him, we talked to him. His body was still warm when we arrived but by midnight he was cold. I walked around the room shaking my head, looking at the singularly most important man in my life, wondering how I would grieve him, how life would go on, what this new epoch would be.
How is it that MY DAD IS DEAD?!? Death resisted, and resists, my thinking.
He was at work that morning, this Monday morning. Everything was normal. He said goodbye to me for the day. I am not even sure I looked up to say goodbye, but I did look up to see him close the door behind him. That was the last time I would see my father upright.
He went for a Karate workout. He never came back. That night my father died…and even as I type this I cannot believe I am typing this.
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”
Grief. Or as one of my friends described it “the bastard of sadness.” How I wish I did not understand that definition.
I have been alive for 36 years. I have lost people close to me, particularly my grandparents. I was lucky enough to have all 4 of my grandparents well into adulthood. They passed at the age of 75, 83, 87 and 89 respectively. All of them were sick, some more than others. Some we knew they would die, others it wasn’t a surprise but neither was it expected. For all, I wept. For all, with the blessing of my family, I eulogized them. For all, I knew life also meant death and all of them had lived a full, long life. I didn’t want to let them go, but I knew I had to.
None of their passings prepared me for this. Not even one.
My father passing suddenly, unexpectedly, without warning and without any family history of cardiac arrest, is not the same for me as losing a grandparent I knew was sick or a father that had cancer whom we knew would die soon. Here I am, trying to process losing my father a full 24 years before he lost his! My dad was 63 when he buried his father…he had him his entire life. I get to have my father half of mine.
I am trying to process going to karate one minute, dead the next.
I realize some people never had a father or some may have had a father for lesser years than me. I am thankful I had him till he was 65 but I mourn he was taken too soon…and knowing I had him 36 years doesn’t change what happened or make my situation easier to compute or accept.
Now, overnight, I’m grieving my father while sitting in his desk, going to his church, running the business he started. I am using his pens, reading his writing daily, using the folders and notebooks he organized…using his checkbooks with his last entries directly above mine! I do not get to evacuate his presence and go back to my life because OUR LIVES ARE CONNECTED! I don’t get to bury my dad in his town and then go back to mine. I have to walk the same sidewalks he walked, talk to people he spoke to, tell people who call for him that he is dead, and use his emails to conduct business!
Most people don’t have to bury a father and then do what I do every day.
No, you may have lost a father but you don’t have to wake up and wear his shoes.
This is too much!
My father dying isn’t the same for me as attending my old father’s funeral, whom I knew was sick and would die, and with whom I had time to say my last peace, tell him I love him, tell him I’m sorry for ever being anything but grateful. This is shock. It is rupture. It is confusion. It is senseless. It is morose.
Likewise, my mother was married to him for 38 years; She was 19. Now, suddenly, she is without him. Overnight, her house is silent in the morning and it is silent before bed. The garbage doesn’t fill as fast. The dishes are only hers and the laundry doesn’t have any of his clothes. My mom did not lose a sick, aged man, who had been dying and whom she knew she would lose. She experienced something totally different.
She lost her world in a single day and now she lives in another one without any warning.
When I think about what happened I cannot help but feel a sense of injustice, injustice that my dad took care of his body, was wary about what he put into it, had regular physicals and blood work, had Lifeway screenings, exercised and refrained from all dietary vices…yet still died without warning while people older, sicker, and in far worse shape avoid the Grim Reaper for some unknown reason.
It rains on the just and the unjust…and this isn’t just.
I don’t really know what people’s expectation of me or my family is. When does the world expect me to be “fine?” When should I be happy again? When is my mind free of my father’s constant memory?
I am not sure I know the answer, but if you expect me to be fine after just 3 weeks…I won’t be. I am not fine. This situation is not fine. I will look fine and I will function, moment by moment, but inside I am thinking about my father…and missing him. Seeing my 65-year-old father in that casket 10-15 years too soon is not fine! I will tolerate it but I am not fine.
It will be a while before “I” and “fine” are one again…and spiritual platitudes do not make it easier.
I am not an expert at grief or loss. If I am lucky, this will be the hardest loss I suffer. I will die before my wife and kids, and my own mother will grow old and I will say goodbye to her in our time, with time and with notice.
I am no expert but I have observed something I feel compelled to share.
It is simple: you do not understand my loss. You cannot relate and it is not the same as yours. Likewise, I am also removed from your loss…for good or ill, bigger or smaller…you don’t understand mine and I don’t understand yours. If yours was easier to deal with, great. I am glad you had that blessing. If mine is easier, than you are in my prayers…because this pit is its own special hell and I would hate to see where you are but I’ll acknowledge you’ve been to a place I haven’t.
This is blunt: you do not understand my loss.
Losing an old, sick father, is not the same as me losing a healthy father suddenly. The slow rupture and loss you felt as you released emotional connection to a man you knew would die is not the same as my father being jerked out of my life, out of this world, and into another.
Just because you lost a dad, doesn’t mean you have any idea how the loss of mine feels. Please don’t compare it…and please don’t tell me you understand…because you don’t.
Likewise, you don’t understand what my mother feels. You may have lost a husband, and you may be a widow, but you didn’t talk to him at 5:30, hear him tell you he’ll see you at 7:30, and the next time you saw him was 9pm, in an ER bed, dead. You losing your old husband isn’t the same.
For those of you who have experienced sudden, rupturing loss, you have an idea…and you know the depth of how bad it sucks…but even then, none of us can experience the grief of another nor should any of us impute our experience of grief onto another person. I will not grieve as you, nor you as I, so please let’s save the nicety and be honest: we don’t understand how one another feels.
All we can do is be present…and stop with the impossible empathy and reminders that God has a plan because if killing humans is part of God’s plan and “timing,” then perhaps we should revisit whether a capricious God like that is worth our attention. I digress.
Likewise, I do not understand what it is to lose my father when he was 40, after he dropped me off at school, only to find that later in the day he will commit suicide. I do not get that pain. I don’t understand that…but one of my friends does. I lost a father, you lost a father, but none of us lost a father like that! We don’t understand her loss even though we lost the same “person.”
You may understand what it means to lose a father, but you don’t understand what it means to lose one that left this world by his own actions.
My uncle lost a son at 20. He said goodnight to him, hugged him, told him he loved him at 9pm. 6-7 hours later police knock on his door and tell him his son is dead. He was killed in a car accident, ejected from the back of the rear window, thrown 200 feet, and DOA. You may have lost a son…but did you lose him like that?
I pray I never lose a child like that…I don’t understand that kind of loss…and I never want to. Many people have lost sons, and fathers, and wives and daughters…but each loss is unique. Yet we seem to think that because we have lost that same “person” we understand what the grieving person is feeling.
Well, we don’t. I never understood that quite like I understand it now so I am sorry if I ever told you “I understand” when I really had no idea.
We need to stop saying it because all it does it either belittle our own loss or it belittles the loss of the other; It does nothing to comfort the hurting person. We can never feel the grief of the other. We are always outside someone else’s experience.
I am not writing this to negate your loss or say my loss is greater than yours…but I do believe, and psychological research reinforces this, that certain types of loss are harder to adjust to and process than others. Loss and grief is not universally experienced. Your loss may be greater, or easier to process, but our losses are not the same.
Your experience is unavailable to me and mine is unavailable to you.
As for my loss, I do not expect anyone to understand even though people have told me they do because they “lost a father too.” I don’t expect empathy because my individual experience is just that: individual.
I appreciate all the thoughts and prayers and texts, but the experience of grief via the death of a loved one is not universal. It is singular and it is experienced singularly via the relationship we had to the departed. You losing a father isn’t like me losing a father, or vice versa…and you losing a father or husband in old age isn’t like my mother losing a spouse.
I’m sorry we can’t feel for one another but the nature of feeling refuses its synonymy.
Honestly, I feel cheated and robbed by what happened. My father’s death not only ended his life, but it will change and shape the direction of my life, my mom, my sister, and my kid’s life…all in a way that if it had happened in a decade from now wouldn’t have been the case. Most of all, his untimely death doesn’t allow me to be a better son, speak power into his life, encourage him when I knew he needed it but was too busy to take the time. While I will move past those regrets, I will get to live with them.
My grief is mine. It is not ours. The sooner we understand this the better humans we can be toward one another when we experience loss, and at some point, we will experience it for ourselves or we will share it with others.
Not all people will go through sudden loss.
Some of us will be lucky. We will grow old, our parents will grow old, our children will grow old…and we will bury one another in appropriate seasons. I pray that is what happens for you. I pray you never feel what it means for a loved one to be instantly removed without warning. I pray you wake up each day to a familiar world with familiar people. I pray you get to let them go gently. I pray you are that fortunate…and I pray I am that fortunate moving forward.
Some Deserts may be traveled with others but they are experienced alone.
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”