Beyond words: Attempts at describing loss

blooming roses

No matter how many times you lose someone or something that you dearly love, the grief is profound and hard to describe. As a writer, I challenge myself to describe various life’s scenarios, some of which I went through, some of which I did not. And I find that describing loss is one of the most difficult things. In the moment of grief, words fail me; in the same way, they fail me when I need to infuse grief into a story.

This is the fragment from my novel, Breaking the silence: A story in paintings, where the main character finds out about his lover’s/soulmate’s death:

My grief was unbearable. I dashed out of our little apartment, its rent being paid till December by Roman s parents who did not want to raise suspicions of their son s escape, and ran like a madman along the city streets. It was a warm summer day and I passed by the ice-cream vendors and stands with the sweet and fluffy cotton candy as I ran. But these sparks of joy belonged to a different world now, the world in which I no longer participated.

My world was elsewhere, in a quiet spot at the river bank, the Vistula River. There, in the sanctuary of solitude whose borders were marked by the river on one side and the poplars on the other, my grief took possession of me. Breathless after a long run, I stretched on the sand and stared into the sky. I felt lonely, for now I had nobody to share my sorrows. I felt betrayed by fate, for the star-crossed lovers from Verona were buried together, locked in an eternal embrace; there was a closure to their love story. There would be no closure to ours, because Roman s parents were the ones responsible for their children s burial, likely to take place in Germany, close to their hometown. What was eternal in our story was my longing for Roman s life cut short, for our love intruded upon by his early death, for what could have been had we lived together ever after. I screamed my thoughts into the vast blue sky on that dreadful afternoon, but naturally, silence was all I heard in response to my grievances. At times, to this day, I look up and scream to the sky in my thoughts. Perhaps one day it will soothe my sorrow with a warm, golden little sunray.

Last week, I came across a very different, more condensed version of rendering loss and I was quite fascinated and touched by it. In “Let us describe,” Gertrude Stein tells a story of people who drove somewhere, but never reached their destination. See how the narrative itself breaks down, as if in sobs, in her grief:

Many others did go and there was a sacrifice, of what shall we, a sheep, a hen, a cock, a village, a ruin, and all that and then that having been blessed let us bless it.

Different as our narratives of loss are, there is one thing that unites them: the challenge of writing about loss in a meaningful way. Stein’s title, “Let us describe” is a beckoning, a call for us to try and describe the grief, but probably, ultimately, fail. It is also a bow or a nod to the people who are lost. It is a gesture of respect as well as the acknowledgment of a profound loss that is manifested in sobs or silence of disbelief. It is the loss that no words can reach. It is the loss beyond language.



Karo Caran, the Rainbow Poetess, is a poet and a non/fiction writer. Her novel, "Breaking the silence: A story in paintings" focuses on the censorship of art and gay relationships in the postwar, communist Poland. Her poetry-based memoir, "Life in a Footnotes" will be published this summer.
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6 thoughts on “Beyond words: Attempts at describing loss

  1. Thank you for sharing some of your writing as well as the additional writings about loss. I am very drawn to loss, perhaps because it has been hard for me to learn to feel, express, and cope with loss. My family tended to suppress and deny it. I really appreciate the paradox you are evoking — creating words to capture loss while acknowledging that “it is the loss that no words can reach” and “loss beyond language.” I am also excited to learn you are a novelist! I have not written fiction, but I have found thoughts coming to me that I’d like to move in that direction.

  2. Thank you for sharing this, Karo. Do you think it’s hard to express loss because we work so hard to get over it quickly? It seems to me that a writer would need to swim around in the feelings for a while in order to really express them on the page. I don’t wonder that it’s difficult.

  3. Karo you are so right, describing loss can be very difficult. I’ve just finished an essay where I describe my husband’s loss of his best friend – an outsider looking in and interpreting a distraught husband’s feelings. Do you think men and women express grief and loss differently?

  4. When we lose a person dear to us we get forced into a big change. It will affect everyone differently so if a writer is able to help someone by putting into words what they may be feeling that is a real blessing.

  5. Hmmmm maybe I need to write about the loss of my Dad when I was 8 months pregnant. I am not afraid to face it thanks to my strong Pluto/Scorpio in my chart – death belongs to that arena!

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