Learning to Say the Unsayable

By Mark Russell Dean


My language was initially raw, “My wife is dead” I repeated reliving the actuality until the reality was concrete.  

As the weeks became months my words in turn reflected a growing acceptance as I would answer “My wife has died”. 

With time I met people who would only ever know me, never us, and quickly learnt that my statement of fact, this defining phrase, could back-fire in a cloud of anxiety or fear from those I said it to. So I edited, rephrased and amended my delivery, in the hope that this would allow conversation without such hesitation.

My language became wrapped in defensive subtlety. A sentence before placed the crash mat “Actually things are not so good...” to prepare the delivery of the emotive punch, my killer phrase. I’d follow-through with “...of course it is tough, as you can appreciate...” a parrying move deflecting a response and eliciting compassion. Finishing as I released them with “...but I am getting there”.

A verbal battery that I considered necessary just let someone know what had happened, but letting us both leave emotionally intact.

Then it settled in the past tense “My wife died” – as absolute a phrase as we might ever hear. And for a long time there was nothing else to add.

Eventually the darkness passed, a springtime appeared and the seeds of a new life took hold. However the statement remained. Stuck in time. Reaching back to a place I was no longer in.

I discovered there are no successful ways to express “Yes my wife died, but I have moved on, and by the way you’re lovely”. I never lied, though I understand why some of us do. No divorce was claimed and my marriage always declared. Just sometimes the ending was left off. Occasionally meetings are easier with a little personal editing.

Now I say “My first wife died”. The phrase delivering as much unsaid context and history as Hemingway’s famous six word story “Babies shoes for sale, never worn” the space between deliberately left for the reader to imagine, should they want to.