Grief has its own distinct onomatopoeia.
José Saramago wove magical words among the magnificent phrases which make up The Elephant’s Journey: one involved a character who “went plof and vanished. Onomatopoeia can be so very handy. Imagine if we’d had to provide a detailed description of someone disappearing. It would have taken us at least ten pages. Plof.”
After many weeks of surprising myself by punctuating the silence of my room with heavy sighs, I discovered that the audible hhhhhhhhhuuuhhhh is considered a physiological hallmark of the grieving process: it is a sound as certain to emanate from the bereaved as is the impulse (presumably an artifact of more recent vintage) to touch the smooth surface of glass over a loved person’s face in a photograph. I do that daily, too.
The random quick, deeper, near-humming intake of air—a hmmmmhhhhhh that sounds far more like a frightened gasp than a sigh—seems to mark a similarly universal symptom: a sudden catch in the throat, a racing heart, an abrupt full stop in time in the midst of any activity, when, all over again, I simply cannot believe my husband isn’t here.
Even before Jim died, my senses altered in such a way that I heard things which he literally did not, like the whirring whoooosh of the continuous-infusion pump he wore during treatment.
I do not hear only symptoms of grief, though.
I hear the timbre and measure of my husband’s voice in my son’s voices.
I hear my husband’s passion for providing medical service to those who can’t afford it as one of my daughters ponders her educational and career plans.
I hear my husband’s love of quirky, wide-ranging music as my younger daughter darts and settles among the smorgasbord of songs on the radio on her way to school. Like him, she instantaneously can “name that tune” from the way she hears a note or two.
I hear physical pain in a friend’s voice over the telephone, but I also can hear a smile—as when I am told I would be a terrible liar after I attempt a verbal dance around the question of whether I have been sleeping, or getting to physical therapy.
I hear scrittching of a mouse in a wall and remember with a smile the time I climbed up on a kitchen chair in our first home and paged Jim, then an intern on overnight call, to ask him what to do about the fearsome white mouse peeking out of the trash. When he got home and actually saw the creature, preparing to escort him outside, he laughed and christened him “Casper the anorectic mouse.”
Several senses seem to have been heightened, as with losing sight and gaining sensitivity to touch and sound. Perhaps it is because of what has been taken away. I so miss using the sense of touch now that I can no longer put my hand along my husband’s face, now that there is no kiss goodbye before work, no way I can run my hand through his hair or rest my palms on his shoulders as he sits in front of his computer screen in deep concentration over a vexing problem, no way I can rest my head in the crook of his neck.
 José Saramago, The Elephant’s Journey (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010), p. 175.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon