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a personal essay on grief

By Mackenzie DavisPublished 10 months ago 9 min read
Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

Shout. Lament. Grieve. This is the sense evolution of “care,” serving for centuries as an expectorant for inner turmoil. Watching it disintegrate, knowing that its original noise is now, at its loudest, a muffled weep under the covers, is to acknowledge the end of this word’s development into ultimate silence.


Gairm = call, cry out, scream

You swallowed your sorrow raw and it scarred you on the way down.


Old Irish established a lingual descriptor for the primal howl. In expelling sorrow, fear, and anger, gairms filled the sky, a cacophony so honest that it sprang up empathy in those nearby, enveloping them in conversation.

The way to ravage away a wasting soul was literally built into the language. Caring was therapy, conversation. Communities heard every instance of it; the act frightened the oppressive force out of the carer.

                                                     Your scars speak to you with every word you                                                      write. “You never screamed, and you still                                                      haven’t. Will you ever?” Feel the infinite                                                      missed opportunities congeal against your                                                      heart.

Gairm was a plummeting waterfall before the return to a steady river current.

                                                      You were sitting on the massage table                                                       downstairs when the call came. The air                                                       thickened with your mother’s shock.

*   *   *

The 1520 transition of gairm into “fondness” illustrates the unifying ripples in a society; this care, this howl, requires someone to answer the simple question, "Will you help?"

                                                      If you’d screamed when she came back into                                                       the room, eyes glazed in the nightmare, you                                                       would have united the family. Everyone                                                       would have joined you.

Escaping a scream—well, that’s impossible; once heard, that question remains. What follows is the need to understand why it is there. Why? Our love, our fondness, disqualifies indifference.

                                                    Hospital. Watch as his aphasia calls for                                                        your howl. Feel your throat block its                                                        surfacing. See your steps back behind your                                                        mom, aunts, uncle.

                                                      You denied him the understanding that                                                        your love transcended his stolen language.

                                                      Thief! Now a victim of theft.

This world purges sorrow, fear, and anger through gairm. The response is the antidote. There, a sky full of howling mixes, harmonizing into a chorus, the toxin shedding to reveal the glimmer that causes progress to be made together.

                                                      Weeks pass, visits increase. You stay home                                                        from most of them.

                                                      Infrequent conversations with those                                                        around you undo the progress you’d made                                                        past obligatory love. During this time, you                                                        are a dam of strength for your mother,                                                        your aunts, your grandma.


Charon = to lament, complain

Twist your face into desperate loss. Does it mirror an untouched and wild truth?


Old High German constrained the howl just enough to establish a power dynamic between society and carer; in doing so, the charon severed the bond between neighbors. Shouts were reduced to long whines in the streets, the response of a howling wolf to the hush of a self-appointed domesticator.

What question can come from this? “Will you help?” degenerates into the pitiful, and largely ignored, “Help me…”

Charon represents the negative command: Don’t be selfish. Don’t be too loud. Don’t make people uncomfortable. This is the new standard of power. The mind dissociates from the emotional center, no longer tapped in to the immediacy of sensation, analysis, or inquisition. There is an endless attempt to find a compassionate listener, yet overstepping is inevitable. Charon, ultimately, prevents the layers from unraveling.

                                                      You think you have layers to unravel, even                                                        now. This hope inside you has kept the time                                                        you spend not thinking about him justified.                                                        Observe yourself perpetuate this inaction.

Charon, as a valved water tank, craves the instinctual memory of the waterfall, of instant release. By holding itself back, the water becomes tainted with the internal landscape of the tank.

                                                      Injustice burns behind your scars, an                                                        almost-weep.

                                                      Grandma didn’t check on him for forty-five                                                        minutes. He missed the window for the                                                        thrombolytic. The doctors didn’t let him                                                        listen to Mozart.

The carer begins to realize language’s passive aggression. Charon causes mumbling whimpers, feelings soured by civility.

                                                      The months wear on, and his aphasia is                                                        unchanged. At the nursing home, you all                                                        assume masks of comprehension, of joy. At                                                        home, your mother weeps.

The carer begins to see how language has made this more difficult than it has to be. Internally, they complain that no one has asked how they’re doing. Externally, they lie that they are fine.

                                                       You echo tangential sorrow to blend in                                                        with the mourners, hoping your fallen face                                                        will bring them to you so you can talk about                                                        your process.

                                                                                                               It doesn’t.


Carian = feel concern, grieve

You weep at night, for only minutes at a time. The darkness absorbs your sobs.


Old English brought care into more silence. The domesticated wolf, happy to acquiesce to the desires of its superiors, howled by sighing. This puff of the lips meets a pointed glare—stopped before it can begin.

Within the carer, carian bounces off a barrier and is sent further inward and further downward so that even attempting charon fails. They shrug their shoulders at faces of indifference, boredom, impatience.

                                                      Telling yourself you cared during the eight                                                        months before his death, see your silence                                                        reveal none of this contemplation out in the                                                        open. There, you loved him, there you ached                                                        for him, mourned him. What indication did                                                        you give?

The subtext of carian coagulates the overfilled water tank into a writhing, rotted, mass, with sorrow, fear, and anger mixed into a thickened, sticky goop that a heavy sigh or silent cry cannot hope to laxen, but will attempt to anyway.

                                                      You stop yourself before you feel.

It adheres to the carer’s bones as a second set of muscles, a second being, yet such closeness only strangles that uncreated impulse which used to find relief in a cry, a scream, a howl.

                                                      Observe your justifications.

Carian’s riddles, vaporous and invisible yet everywhere blind the carer from recognizing emotion.

                                                      1 | It takes time to fully come to grips with                                                        this sort of loss. “The longer he’s gone, the                                                        harder it is,” your mom says, right before                                                        breaking down for the third time. Your                                                        heart clenches, but your mouth is unmoved.

                                                       What did it clench with? you wonder now.

Even if presented with the opportunity, a howl could not shed the second being, that of indoctrinated paralysis.

                                                       2 | It would have been selfish to cry louder.                                                        Your tears fell on the pillow. No one knows                                                        of your grief.

Language’s passive violence, from Old Irish to Old English, makes the return to gairm an insurmountable task. Restraint against the expulsion of sorrow, fear, and anger forms the lie of monologue and the belief that it is true:

                                                                     3 | You barely knew him.

                                                                     4 | Your sorrow doesn’t compare to                                                                      your mother’s, to your aunts’.

                                                                    You didn’t even care when he died,                                                                      did you? Did you?

                                                                                                             Did I?


Care = be anxious

You wonder if you are emotionally distant because you never learned how to emote or because you discouraged yourself from it.


                                                                     Every anniversary, you see your                                                                      mother dissolve into her body’s                                                                      unconscious memorials: insomnia,                                                                      fatigue, irritability, sensitivity.                                                                      Confusion until the realization.

Caring in Old English also related to anxiety, and through it, the carer goes through the process of introspection, which cannot but lead to self-interrogation. It is at this point on the path that curiosity helps to uncover what we have forgotten.

                                                                                             Why can’t you feel?

                                                                     His birthday comes five weeks                                                                      before the anniversary. This is the                                                                      beginning of the mourning period                                                                      for others. For you, it is the                                                                      culmination of years of self-lashing.

Asking questions about everything except ourselves demonstrates our intimate knowledge of the truth. A disguise is a self-portrait, and curiosity is just that—a disguise.

                                                                     Why do you choose to be apathetic?

                                                                     You never talk to anyone. You seem                                                                      fine, chipper, moody (but that’s                                                                      normal).

If anxiety is universal, experienced by most people in the world, its purpose seems less and less significant. Anti-anxiety medication is the solution, maybe some therapy.

                                                                     Why can’t you be vulnerable?


1598 brought the original usage of the phrase, “curiosity killed the cat”: Paraphrased, the 1898 Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable offers this insight: “It is said that a cat has nine lives, but care would wear them all out.”

                                                                     Were you always like this? Why                                                                      didn’t you attempt to overcome                                                                      your social anxiety when he was                                                                      alive, to bond with him?


                                                                     Why, why, why!

The reason for the howl is who we are; the howl itself asks why we are. A messy, deafening lifetime of screaming, while not necessarily granting the answer, would keep us empty of toxic riddles.

                                                                     He was always out of touch, a                                                                      fixture in everyone’s life. Prayer                                                                      leader, voice of sense, eccentric                                                                      comic. The unrecognized rock at                                                                      family gatherings, until he wasn’t                                                                      anymore.

How to harness care now is the real challenge.

                                                                     Did I care when he died? I can’t                                                                      remember now. Oh God, I didn’t                                                                      care when he died. Wouldn’t I                                                                      remember if I did?

The more we worry, it would seem, the less room there is for discovery.

                                                                     You worry that the death of anyone                                                                      else will result the same way. You                                                                      worry that you are not truly bonded                                                                      to anyone in your family. You                                                                      worry that you are a leech.


Don’t care = feel a lack of interest or concern

                                                                     You’ve locked yourself into                                                                      unfeeling. These words are your                                                                      backup plan, the unspoken                                                                      confessions you hope your family                                                                      will read one day.

The modern phrase, “couldn’t care less” represents the inability of the carer to express and the inability of the recipient to take the time to hear. From the passive aggression of charon, this blatant dismissal of the carer is the final descent into silencing the howl. Its dearth is filled by an individual’s body language:

                 “I don’t care.”

                                  “I couldn’t care less.”

The subtext of this is that the original carer doesn’t and cannot care either.

                                                                     If you’d screamed when your aunt                                                                      called with the news, when you saw                                                                      his sagging face and heard his                                                                      aphasic utterings, you wonder what                                                                      the answer would have been. If you                                                                      had called out to God to give him his                                                                      voice back; if you had cried to the                                                                      heavens, to the night drivers on the                                                                      way to Fazolis; in tandem with                                                                      your grandmother, mother, sister,                                                                      cousins, aunts, uncle, you wonder                                                                      what the answer to everyone’s                                                                      question would have been. Your                                                                      question. Your howl.



About the Creator

Mackenzie Davis

“When you are describing a shape, or sound, or tint, don’t state the matter plainly, but put it in a hint. And learn to look at all things with a sort of mental squint.” Lewis Carroll

Find me elsewhere.

Copyright Mackenzie Davis.

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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  • Donna Fox (HKB)4 months ago

    Okay... firstly how did you do this with the formatting??? You're like a magian just with that trick alone! Secondly, I wasn't ready for how deep the dug inside my soul. It was relatable and thought provoking and mind bending in a way... I'm kind of at a loss of how I feel about this and what to think about it. I think I'm still processing and unpacking some of the things this piece disturbed for me. Great piece Mackenzie!

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