On the morning of 6 February 2014 I woke up as the youngest of three siblings. That night I went to bed, and only two of us remained. My brother Matthew was 39 when he died. I was 31. In the aftermath of his unexpected and sudden death, I was forced to think about the lack of words we have for a sibling who has lost a sibling. Or for a parent whose child has died.
My brave sister-in-law bristled against the word widow, the sound of it conjuring up images of the hunched over and greying, those widowed by the natural way of things. And though I understood her reluctance to take on this new title, I was jealous of the existence of it. The name itself comes from the Indo-European for ‘be empty’. The way the pain somehow disappears you. Empties you of the life you knew. The physicality of grief empties your lungs of air, winding you on the way down as it brings you to your knees.
My brave sister-in-law bristled against the word widow, the sound of it conjuring up images of the hunched over and greying, those widowed by the natural way of things.
Today, almost seven years later, I wonder again if there is a name for me. Perhaps there is an ancient word, or something I have missed. I type into Google: ‘Is there a name fo…’ and the auto-fill options appear in a drop-down box. Is there a name for someone who only eats chicken? Is there a name for the back of the knee? Is there a name for the Saturday before Easter? These are the things people want to know.
The back of a knee is called the popliteal fossa. A 'pollo vegetarian' avoids red meat and fish but eats chicken. Holy Saturday commemorates the day that Jesus lay in the tomb after his death. Google’s auto-fill doesn’t finish my sentence when I type: Is there a name for a sibling who has lost a sibling? I type each letter manually. The answer, in any case, is no.
Google’s auto-fill doesn’t finish my sentence when I type: Is there a name for a sibling who has lost a sibling?
A wife who remarries after she loses her husband is technically not a widow any longer. As if the emptiness is no longer there. This un-naming is damaging too. It denies the way loss and grief shape us. The permanence of loss, regardless of what comes next.
In publishing, an orphan is the first line of a paragraph set as the last line of a page or column. It is considered undesirable. The word widow has been adopted by publishing too; the last word or short last line of a paragraph falling at the top of a page. These words, like people, floating in blank space.
The month after Matt’s death I went to the doctor. Insomnia. General exhaustion. Difficulty eating. I needed a diagnosis. She kindly told me that it was because my brother had died suddenly and the physical symptoms of loss were to be expected. And I knew this was true but I wanted more. I begged for a diagnosis, other than generalised grief. I needed a name. She agreed to a blood test and it showed I had low iron levels. I was Iron Deficient. I held on to this title like it could carry me through. I didn’t even add more red meat to my diet. I was just happy to have a word to explain me.
Recently I was walking and saw a friend of a friend who had lost her teenage daughter just weeks before. Her pain was visceral. She looked physically changed, this mother with her drowning soul and her hollowed out frame. She is not the same person as she was the day before her daughter died and yet her title remains unchanged. She is a mother still, to those living and those no longer here. But she is more than that, and deserves the word for it. For it to be recognised; the particular horror of existing in a world without your child.
The most surprising thing about death is the way the world keeps moving.
‘There are no words…’ people often say to those experiencing grief in an attempt to comfort. And maybe this is the point. The loss has taken away our words - the naming of things - and so we need to claim them back.
We are defined by the things we gain. We become mothers and fathers and teachers and doctors and grandparents and wives and husbands and partners and lovers and friends. But the losses make more of us too.
The most surprising thing about death is the way the world keeps moving. After our whole world ends, traffic lights change and coffees are made and people head to work; the ordinariness in such stark contrast to the unravelling of our lives. This is why a name holds so much power. That in the midst of a world that keeps spinning we have something to hold on to, to tether us. Not for pity but for comfort, to define ourselves by reference to the thing no longer there.
Natasha Sholl is an ex-lawyer and writer living in Melbourne. She is currently working on her first manuscript touching on the topics of grief and loss.