The One Word That Gives This Widow Some Comfort

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On a recent trip to New York, I was fortunate to meet with Dr. Katherine Shear, Marion E. Kenworthy Professor of Psychiatry at the Columbia University School of Social Work. Dr. Shear works with those affected by complicated grief, which is defined by the Complicated Grief Center as: “something getting in the way of adapting after the death of a loved one. When grief is complicated, the pain can be unrelenting and life seems empty of any possibility for happiness. We want to help lessen the pain. We want to make it possible to honor grief as a form of love”:

I was heartened to hear a) that I was not in complicated grief, and b) that someone was addressing the problem for so many widows and widowers who can’t move on.

I asked Dr. Shear many questions about grief and she kindly gave me many nuggets of wisdom concerning grief therapy. I realize that reading book after book on grief is part of my process looking for answers. In my heart I know there are no answers to getting through a loss such as mine, but in my head, I search feverishly for some miracle that will explain my pain. When she mentioned the word saudade I was intrigued enough to surf the internet for its significance and why it gave me some degree of comfort.

Saudade is a Portuguese expression that is almost untranslatable. The best way to describe it is: the presence of absence. It is a longing for someone or something that you remember fondly but know you can never experience again. It is an awareness of the absence of a person or thing, which puts you in a deep emotional state of sadness. The presence of absence grapples with those who should be here but aren’t. It is a form of homesickness and deep yearning. You are among thousands of people but none is the one you want to be by your side. Saudade is the moment you realize how important people are in your life and the moments you have taken for granted.

According to history, the word saudade came into being in the 15th century when Portuguese ships sailed to Africa and Asia. A sorrow was felt for those who departed for long journeys, and too often disappeared in shipwrecks or died in battle. Those who stayed behind deeply suffered from their absence. The survivors had a constant feeling of something that was missing in their lives. The word is derived from the Latin plural solitates, meaning solitudes, but it is also influenced by the word salv, meaning safe. There is a dichotomy here between solitude and safety that I am trying to understand. I know the finite quality of loss, but the safe part of saudade is what inspires me. I miss Peter so deeply and want him by my side and yet I am grateful for the moments I had with him. His absence is a presence in my soul and my heart that I will treasure forever.

Saudade is not nostalgia where you reminisce about happy and sad emotions. You remember the happiness but feel the sadness knowing you can’t recapture the feeling. Nostalgia expresses a sensation one has for a loved one who has died while saudade is the knowledge that Peter is absent from my life. Saudade provides comfort because even in my sorrow, I sometimes feel an incongruous rush of joy in the hope of recovering something that will fill the presence of his absence.

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