The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Her legs were amputated by a blow to the back of the knees. Scars to her back show attempts made to break the torso in two. The stone sculpture, which dates from between 26,000 and 22,000 years ago, depicts a heavily pregnant woman and was certainly destroyed intentionally. Why did she meet such a violent end?

One theory, advanced by the archaeologists who found her: the sculpture was smashed following the death in childbirth of the woman depicted. Violent ANGER as part of the agony of grief is something we all recognize. There’s no reason to suppose our ancient ancestors didn’t recognize it too.

Of all the emotions, the confusion and pain of grief is so personal, so unfathomable, that to speak of “it” is wrongheaded. “It’s useless for me to describe,” confessed Lemony Snicket in The Bad Beginning, which starts with the death of the children’s father, “how terrible Violet, Klaus, and even Sunny felt in the time that followed.… If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels, and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.” It’s not just that other people’s grief can be hard to appreciate. If we are lucky, profound grief is something we’ll experience only a few times in our lives, so it is nearly always disorienting, an emotion for which we get very little rehearsal.

We may feel a debilitating SHOCK: “For a week, almost without speaking, they went about like sleepwalkers through a universe of grief,” wrote Gabriel García Márquez. We may, as did the poet Emily Dickinson, experience a peculiar stiffness as if all emotion has been suspended (see: FORMAL FEELING, A). There may be RELIEF that a terminally ill loved one is no longer suffering, GRATITUDE that our burden of care is over (there may be SHAME at these feelings too). Or else, we may find ourselves cracking bawdy jokes at the wake, or dissolving into inappropriate giggles during the cremation. For many, this bubbling over of emotion is a common, if sometimes a little frowned-upon, release. Among the Koma of northern Ghana, however, it is actually customary for grandchildren to laugh and joke during a grandparent’s funeral, mocking the funeral rites—even attempting to kidnap the corpse—their behavior providing a moment of “comic relief” for the mourners.

But in truth, grief has barely started by the time the funeral is over. In A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis wrote of his “permanently provisional feeling” in the months and even years following his wife Joy’s death. Restlessness prevailed. “It doesn’t seem worth starting anything. I can’t settle down. I yawn, I fidget, I smoke too much.” There are so many habits and expectations to be rearranged when a part of our life is kicked out from under us. Lewis hung around, waiting for something to happen. “I am beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense,” he wrote.

It is a suspense, however, studded with harder feelings too: the anger and bitterness at having been abandoned; the way we might reproach ourselves for our contribution to our own misery—if only we hadn’t cared, we think, or at least not so much. And then the sorrow is set off again by a sharp stab of remembrance. A flicker of a shadow in the mirror, an imaginary key heard in the door, the expectation of a phone call that never comes. In grief, the loss of the loved one haunts us. For the two years after the painter Chagall’s wife Bella died, his canvases bear a repeated theme. The artist swims out from the murky background, hand in hand with his ghostly bride: he supports her flagging form, she reaches out to him. If others see such absorption as a stubborn refusal to “move on,” even those in its grip might wonder if such ghosts will ever find rest.

Yet, for an emotion that can feel so peculiar and lonely, grief has conventions and scripts, whose stage directions, different from culture to culture, tell us how we should mourn. According to the Sahih Muslim, a book of precepts or hadith attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, collected in the ninth century, grievers may weep for their lost ones. Convulsive shrieking, slapping one’s cheeks and tearing at one’s clothes, however, are strictly forbidden, for “the deceased is tortured in his grave for the wailing done over him.” By contrast, in the weeks following the death of Princess Diana in 1997, British reserve was seen to give way to a new era of emotionality. Some of those who remained unmoved, or saw the displays of teddy bears and flowers as mawkish and sentimental, reported feeling self-conscious, as if theirs was a stubborn refusal to mourn. It was all, as Jacqueline Rose has put it, “so coercive—grief not only had to be done but had to be seen to be done.”

Such rituals do not only dictate how we should experience grief, but also how it ought to progress. We commonly refer to different “stages” of grief. Denial comes first. Then anger, bargaining, depression. Finally comes acceptance—which is often glossed as “closure.” This “five stages of grief” model can be traced back to work carried out by the Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the late 1960s, although her research was based not on grief felt at the loss of another, but on her observations of people facing their own terminal diagnoses (see: EUPHORIA). We might increasingly wonder how helpful this rigid model with its progression of stages may be (Kübler-Ross herself wasn’t so sure). For many of us, moving from denial to acceptance involves more of an ebb and flow. For others, grief is an endlessly circular process, something we never really “get over”—even if we do learn to live with it. “You don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel,” Julian Barnes has written. “You come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.”

See also: SADNESS.