Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Swearing and Grief

Ludwig Wittgenstein nailed it:
“The limits of my language set the limits of my understanding.”

People think that swearing isn’t polite, especially in public. Some of us can’t even swear at home without feeling guilty. People also think that talking about grief isn’t polite, so those who are grieving have to limit their emotions to what is nice.

Yet death isn’t nice, and when someone we love dies, trying to stuff our grief into the Polite Language Box doesn’t work. Grief’s emotions are too big.

When someone kicks us in the genitals, we don’t say, “Ouch, that hurts.”

We swear and try to punch the person who kicked us. When Death does the kicking, we have no one to punch to get revenge, so we swear even more — at cancer, accidents, suicides and stillbirths.

Words are powerful. The right word at the right time can change a person’s outlook completely around. Words help us express anger, despair and frustration, yet there are no words that can remove grief.

The swearing of grievers is not simply borrowing the military’s salty language, although the imagery of going into battle fits because we are fighting to survive. We swear because we have to. Swearing releases the pressure that builds up inside. Otherwise we would crack.

Swearing is effective at sharing strong emotions. This is different than swearing to tear someone down.

I was talking about this with Steve, a friend who is barely in his 60s. He noted that swear words like f**k do not have the same shock and power for people his daughter’s age as it has for him. For people in their 20s and 30s, f**k is colloquial, a toss-off expression.

If we are grieving and don’t let ourselves swear when we need to swear, then we begin to censor ourselves, and when we censor ourselves, we stop dealing with what is gnawing away at us and we get stuck in grief. By letting ourselves swear, we tap into the emotions that are flowing under the surface, the deeper levels within us that we keep hidden. Swearing opens them up so that we can work through them.

Whether we acknowledge them or not, these emotional sub-currents affect us. We may think we’re sailing along on the smooth surface of grief’s ocean because we’re handling each day’s problems, but underneath we’re one churning mess. Here’s the thing. We don’t get a handle on grief until we dive into the mess.

Swearing is the visceral language of traumatic grief.

Whether we swear or not, there is a larger issue. Because people in our society haven’t talked openly about grief for decades, we’ve forgotten how to talk about it intelligently and expressively. We’re forgotten its language.

Finding the right words to describe your grief to others is crucial. If you say your grief is “hard,” I don’t know what you mean. It’s “hard” in what way?

Is it hard because you feel lonely without your spouse? Or hard because you’re exhausted from having to do all the chores? Or hard because you’re depressed and don’t know if you can pay all your bills? Or, if you lost a child, is it hard because you will never see their lives blossom? Or hard because you can’t forget the pain they suffered while dying?

I need you to say more. This is where sitting down with you and listening come in. By asking you about what I do not understand, you search for better words to explain and come to understand something that you did not see clearly.

As good as swearing is for expressing deep emotions, there is a time when all words go mute and we fall on our knees and howl inarticulate sounds. In the old days, when Celtic people lost someone they loved, they went out to keen on the moors. This might be the purest expression of grief, when our entire body weeps and shakes with the emotions that are ripping our hearts apart. I have heard keening only once, and it unsettled my bones.

Swearing is the raw emotion of grief given physical form.

Tim Lawrence wrote an excellent essay on the appropriateness of swearing when grieving, called “Why Swearing Is F**king Important.” I don’t swear often in my writing, as Tim points out. I can think of only two instances. The first time was at Gethsemani Monastery when I was staying with Trappist monks for a week. I wrote about this in my essay, “Tinkering With Grief in the Woods.” The second time was in an incantation poem of anger and frustration called “Bang the Drum” that was written at a grief retreat.

Look. The death of someone we love one is probably the worst thing that will ever happen to us.

If you feel like swearing when you’re grieving, do so. I won’t be offended. If you don’t feel like swearing, that’s fine, too. The thing is, I don’t want you to hold your emotions back. I want you to face grief with all the honesty and mustard you can muster. I want you to be honest when you share your grief with me.

I can’t help you if you censor yourself and tell me only nice things. Saying the nice things will get you a Tootsie Pop. Honesty will get you my compassion.