• There is No Specific Noun for a Parent Who Has Lost a Child

    Denise Riley on the Temporal Dislocation of Profound Loss

    I’ll not be writing about death, but about an altered condition of life. The experience that not only preoccupied but occupied me was of living in suddenly arrested time: that acute sensation of being cut off from any temporal flow that can grip you after the sudden death of your child. And a child, it seems, of any age. 

    Because I’m considering a state that’s not rare, but for many is lived daily, I shan’t be having recourse to an exceptionalist diction of “trauma.” And whether this state might be considered to fall within the compass of “pathology” doesn’t greatly bother me here, although my inclination’s to avoid that judgement. Certainly someone could produce an account of this freezing of time as an act of dissociation, or a borderline psychotic effort to erect a shield against the death’s reality.

    Or someone else could produce neurological accounts of the brain flooded with its own—this time, biochemical—defenses. But I want to avoid offering my amateur speculations about existing theories. Instead, while hoping not to lapse into melodrama or self-regarding memoir, I’ll try to convey that extraordinary feeling of a-temporality. 

    But how could such a striking condition ever be voiced? It runs wildly counter to everything that I’d thought we could safely assume about lived time. So this “arrested time” is also a question about what is describable; about the linguistic limits of what can be conveyed. I’m not keen on conceding to any such limits. Yet it seems that the possibilities for describing, and the kinds of temporality that you inhabit, may be intimately allied. For there do turn out to be “kinds,” in the plural. 

    This stopping of time can, for those who find themselves plunged into it, be lived. It turns out, surprisingly, not to be necessary to live only inside a time that runs in a standard movement. You discover, on the contrary, that you can manage well enough inside your private non-time of pure stasis. That such an experience is not uncommon, I’m sure, as I’ve listened closely for several years to what bereaved parents say in meetings, in online discussions, or in private encounters—and this in two countries.

    Yet any published mention of this seemingly a-temporal life is rare. Before speculating about its absence, I want to insist that such a prolonged cessation of the flow of time is not contained by the well-worn metaphorical remark that “time stopped.” There’s nothing that feels either familiar or metaphorical in living out this condition in which time, perhaps for years on end, is arrested. The weak metaphor of “time stopped” would sap the force from a description of this new state. Once you’re plunged into it, the actual metaphoricity of our usual accounts of the passage of time is laid bare, for now you realize that the real espousal of figurative speech would be to maintain that time inevitably “flows.”

    Hard to put into words, yet absolutely lucid as you inhabit it daily, this sensation of having been lifted clean out of habitual time only becomes a trial if you attempt to make it intelligible to others who’ve not experienced it. The prospect of recounting it in a written form stayed, for me, both repugnant and implausible for well over two and a half years after the death. You can’t, it seems, take the slightest interest in the activity of writing unless you possess some feeling of futurity.

    The act of describing would involve some notion of the passage of time. Narrating would imply at least a hint of “and then” and “after that.” Any written or spoken sentence would naturally lean forward towards its development and conclusion, unlike my own paralyzed time. Why should you even dream of explaining how, after an unexpected death, you might find yourself living in this profoundly altered temporal state? The risks of trying are clear enough: you’d resemble the survivor of the 1960s who bores everyone with tales of his inexpressibly memorable acid trips—then, as if worse were needed, you’d top it off with the layer of unassailable pathos due to your status as the mother of a dead child. 

    People’s intentions are good; a respect for the severity of what they suppose you’re enduring, and so a wish not to claim to grasp it.

    Nonetheless, however commonplace this condition of being “outside time,” when you’re first in it, it’s so quietly astonishing that you can’t do other than take a cool interest in how you might characterize it. This, for several reasons. Because to concede at the outset that it’s “indescribable” would only isolate you further, when coming so close to your child’s death is already quite solitary enough; because it’s scarcely rare, for immeasurably vast numbers have known, and will continue to know, this sense of being removed from time, and so your efforts might well be familiar to everyone else who’s also struggled to speak about this vivid state. Or perhaps it’s also a kind of vanity, my hope that describing it might ring true for others who are in the same boat. 

    There’s no specific noun for a parent of a dead child; nothing like the terms for other losses such as “orphan” or “widower.” No single word exists, either, for an “adult child”—an awkward phrase which could suggest a large floppy-limbed doll. For such a historically common condition as outliving your own child, the vocabulary is curiously thin. The same phrases recur. For instance, many kindly onlookers will instinctively make use of this formula: “I can’t imagine what you are feeling.”

    There’s a paradox in this remark, for it’s an expression of sympathy, yet in the same breath it’s a disavowal of the possibility of empathy. Undoubtedly it’s very well meant, if (understandably) fear-filled. People’s intentions are good; a respect for the severity of what they suppose you’re enduring, and so a wish not to claim to grasp it. Still, I’d like them to try to imagine; it’s not so difficult. Even if it’s inevitable, or at any rate unsurprising, that those with dead children are regarded with concealed horror, they don’t need to be further shepherded into the inhuman remote realms of the “unimaginable.”

    So I want to try, however much against the odds, to convey only the one striking aspect: this curious sense of being pulled right outside of time, as if beached in a clear light. 

    My own instincts here happen to run in favor of de-dramatizing; but to properly de-dramatize, first you’d need to admit this strangeness fully into the compass of the discussable. Perhaps there may be at least a half-tellable ordinariness here. This demands witness. I’ll offer some of that, if hesitantly, as I’d rather have steered clear of all autobiography.

    A few of my notes are reproduced below, though they can walk around only the rim of this experience. At times they loop back on themselves, for one effect of living inside such a temporal suspension is that your reflections will crop up all over again but as if, on each occasion, they’re newly thought. 

    What follows is what I set down at the time at infrequent intervals, in the order that I lived it.


    Two weeks after the death: 

    In these first days I see how rapidly the surface of the world, like a sheet of water that’s briefly agitated, will close again silently and smoothly over a death. His, everyone’s, mine. I see, as if I am myself dead. This perception makes me curiously lighthearted. 

    You share in the death of your child, in that you approach it so closely that you sense that a part of you, too, has died that instant. At the same time, you feel that the spirit of the child has leaped into you. So you are both partly dead and yet more alive. You are cut down, and yet you burn with life. 


    One month after the death: 

    This so-called “work of grief” is turning out to be a shatteringly exhausting apprehension of the needed work of living. It demands to be fully lived, while the labor of living it is physically exhausting—like virulent jetlag, but surging up in waves. 

    The notes and emails of condolence have stopped arriving and I’ve acknowledged each of them. Yet after all this ritual and effort, he still hasn’t come home. What more does he want?

    So intricate and singular a living thing can’t just vanish from the surface of life: that would run counter to all your accumulated experience. The day after his death, studiously wiping away what you realize are the last tangible traces: tiniest bits of his hair from the edge of the washbasin. This solid persistence of things. So then, the puzzle of what “animation” is; of exactly what it is that’s been crushed. 

    At the death of your child, you see how the edge of the living world gives onto burning whiteness.

    This instant enlargement of human sympathy. It’s arrived in me at once. His death has put me in mind of those millions whose children were and are lost in natural disasters, starved, drowned, or systematically obliterated in wars; no wonder that bitterness and a loss of hope have filtered down the generations, with the resulting disengagement of those left alive. Millions disorientated, perhaps, by this quiet feeling of living, only just, on this near side of a cut between the living and the dead. 

    At the death of your child, you see how the edge of the living world gives onto burning whiteness. This edge is clean as a strip of guillotined celluloid film. First came the intact negative full of blackened life in shaded patches, then abruptly, this milkiness. This candid whiteness, where a life stopped. Nothing “poetic,” not the white radiance of eternity—but sheer non-being, which is brilliantly plain.


    Five months after: 

    Apparently almost half a year has gone by since J disappeared, and it could be five minutes or half a century, I don’t know which. There is so very little movement. At first I had to lie down flat for an hour each afternoon, because of feeling crushed as if by a leaden sheet, but by now I don’t need to lie down. This slight physical change is my only intimation of time. 

    Knowing and also not knowing that he’s dead. Or I “know” it, but privately I can’t feel it to be so. These fine gradations of admitting the brute facts of the case, while not feeling them; utterly different, though, from supposing that he’s still alive somewhere else in this world. This isn’t some ambiguity designed to blur the hard fact. Nor is it an imperfect anaesthetic. 

    This knowing and not knowing is useful, for it allows the truthful richness of all those shades of acknowledging and dissenting. Half-realizing while half-doubting, assenting while demurring, conceding while finding it ludicrously implausible—so many distinctions, all of them nicely in play. To characterize such accurate nuances as my “denial” of his death would be off the mark. Yet who is policing my “acceptance” of it?

    What a finely vigorous thing a life is; all its delicate complexity abruptly vanished. Almost comical. A slapstick fall. 

    There’s no relation, simply, between your recall of the courageously optimistic dead and your knowledge of the fall of sudden blackness. But you struggle to hold both in mind at once. You try to slot together the snippets of evidence—coffin, ashes, silent house, nonreappearance of child—to become fully convinced by the deduction that you have conscientiously drawn. 

    My head can’t piece together the facts of a coffin under its roses and lilies, then the sifting gunmetal-grey ashes, with this puzzling absence of the enthusiastic person who left home to work abroad for a few days but has still not walked back in the door. 

    Not that I have delusions, as such. But a strong impression that I’ve been torn off, brittle as any dry autumn leaf, liable to be blown onto the tracks in the underground station, or to crumble as someone brushes by me in this public world where people rush about loudly, with their astonishing confidence. Each one of them a candidate for sudden death, and so helplessly vulnerable. If they do grasp that at any second their own lives might stop, they can’t hold on to that expectation. As I do now. Later everyone on the street seems to rattle together like dead leaves in heaps.  

    Wandering around in an empty plain, as if an enormous drained landscape lying behind your eyes had turned itself outward. Or you find yourself camped on a threshold between inside and out. The slight contact of your senses with the outer world, your interior only thinly separated from it, like a membrane resonating on a verge between silence and noise.

    Immediately J vanished, I fell into a solidarity with other bereaved parents: an imagined solidarity, because at that stage I didn’t know any.

    If it were to tear through, there’s so little behind your skin that you would fall out towards the side of sheer exteriority. Far from taking refuge deeply inside yourself, there is no longer any inside, and you have become only outward. As a friend, who’d survived the suicide of the person closest to her, says: “I was my two eyes set burning in my skull. Behind them there was only vacancy.” 

    I work to earth my heart. 


    Six months after: 

    A summer has gone, a cold autumn is setting in, but I’ve no sense of my time as having any duration, or any future. Time now is a plateau. I only know whether an event came before or after the date of the death. If there was a death. I didn’t see the body. His body. Not that the sight always helps to anchor your belief in the fact. What a lumpish little word: “dead.” And “died” seems an increasingly silly verb.

    “Dead,” used of the lively J, strikes me as not only unlikely, but mistaken. A prematurely coarse verdict. Like John Donne’s phrase; “her death—which word wrongs her.” Instead I want to say “since he vanished.” That seems far more accurate. It’s better conveyed in French or in Italian, where without any affectation you could call someone’s death “his disappearance,” or you might naturally say that “she has left us.” 

    Immediately J vanished, I fell into a solidarity with other bereaved parents: an imagined solidarity, because at that stage I didn’t know any. I sought them out, online and in meetings and one-to-one, and I listen ardently to how they try to live on. So I can hear that everyone testifies to this wish once they’re in the safe company of others in the same boat: the hope for their own rapid death.

    Yet I can’t allow myself this comforting prospect, as I won’t abandon my surviving children. Any more than I’ll abandon the dead one. I never abandoned him in his life, and I’ve no intention of starting now, “just because he’s dead.” What kind of a reason would that be? I tried always to be there for him, solidly. And I shall continue to be. (The logic of this conviction: in order to “be there,” I too have died.) 

    A vicarious death. If a sheet of blackness fell on him, it has fallen on me too. As if I also know that blankness after his loss of consciousness.  

    This state is physically raw, and has nothing whatever to do with thinking sad thoughts or with “mourning.” It thuds into you. Inexorable carnal knowledge. 

    The plainest simplest horror from which the mind flinches away: never to see that person again. The purely cognitive violence of it. Now you understand those ideas of the migration of spirits, or of reincarnation: to try to soften that blow. Or no, not to soften it—but to provide something for baffled cognition to grasp at. 

    I’ve decided that this slow head of mine has to be left alone to not manage to make its impossible deduction. Meanwhile I’ll try to incorporate J’s best qualities of easy friendliness, warmth, and stoicism, and I shall carry him on in that way. Which is the only kind of resurrection of the dead that I know about. 

    I am inching along. But not forward, or in any other decipherable direction. If it’s crabwise, then it’s without effective pincers. This deep tiredness, as if sharing his grave; although actually most of that dead boy was poured as fine charcoal powder straight into the sea.  


    Nine months after: 

    Now it’s 39 weeks, the duration of a pregnancy, since he vanished. As if a pregnancy had by now been wound backwards past the point of conception and away into its pre-existence. 

    What do the dead give us? A grip on the present instant in which we’re now relentlessly inserted. Not in a contemplative sense, but vigorously. A carnal sensation. If to be dead is to exist outside of earthly time, then this tough-minded energetic “living in the present” is also the life of the dead. My new ability to live in the present joins in that timelessness of being dead. Or the nearest I can get to it. 


    Excerpted from Time Lived, Without Its Flow. Used with the permission of the publisher, New York Review Books. Copyright © 2020 by Denise Riley.

    Denise Riley
    Denise Riley
    Denise Riley is a philosopher and poet. She is the author of the poetry collections Marxism for Infants, Dry Air, Stair Spirit, and others. Say Something Back was nominated for a Forward Prize for Best Poetry Collection. Riley’s nonfiction writing includes War in the Nursery: Theories of the Child and Mother and Impersonal Passion: Language as Affect. She is currently Professor of the History of Ideas and of Poetry at the University of East Anglia.

    More Story
    The Maggie Nelson Test for Lesbian Dating Success “What books should I read?” A asked. I sat on the floor of the blank but bougie living room of a house she miraculously...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.