The words we speak, and those we don’t
By Ron King
LIFE is infinite. Words are not. When we attempt to describe life transitions, we use words like “birth” and “death”. Both are mysteries we experience and speak of only in part because they point to a journey from what is seen to what is not seen. Even words like “transition”, “journey”, and “unseen” are simply vague hints of the spiritual realm. “Spiritual” is another term we use as a way of guessing at the infinite Mystery we call LIFE.
When life as we know it comes to an end, we search for words to contain the emotions, understanding, loss and hope we experience. We speak of “death and dying”, “passing away”, someone who is “no longer with us” or has “expired”. None of these terms describe the fullness of our thoughts and feelings, but are attempts we make to communicate difficult mysteries as we pass through the “valley of the shadow of death” (another choice of words seeking to encompass the mystery of death).
As caregivers and hospice patients, we approach an inevitable end that comes on its own schedule. The words we use help us take the next step in that direction, connect with each other, and make some sense of what is happening. When we realize that our words will always be inadequate to convey all we carry inside, we can use them more freely. When we accept the fact that no words will be complete or fully accurate, we can grope with confidence that each attempt to fathom the unfathomable, to describe the indescribable provides a limited but valid perspective that allows a fleeting glimpse of the grief and hope we feel.
Words by definition are dualistic. They provide us with a way to indicate what is true or false, what is right or wrong, what is best, or real, or important. The questions and meanings we face at end of life won’t be contained inside these categories. Words alone can never hold the love expressed in caring for another because love is also a mystery, just as is life itself. So we speak and listen for the words that shape us and guide us from many perspectives, each fitting in different places at different moments. Our words are never adequate, yet each of them are needed as we seek comfort, confidence, and acceptance. We can’t define or explain what matters most, but we give and receive tiny bits of the infinite with words.
To express more, we enter the silence of knowing we are not alone, silence of waiting for the strength, comfort and direction we need and silence of listening for life’s calling. Avoiding words gives space for us to rest and freedom to find our own way. Quiet moments provide the stillness needed to experience peace. Leaving a gap between words is an act of respect that allows words to be shaken off if unhelpful or to sink in deeply if needed.