Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Passed tense

There’s a way to to work out where a grieving person is in their journey: Language. Tense, pronouns, and titles are all indicators of where someone is in their journey. The same thing applies to the seriousness with which they deal with language. It’s all part of the process.

After Nigel died, I had a lot of problems with language, especially things like tense and pronouns. For months, maybe most of the first year, I was likely to say, for example, something like, “we have a vacuum cleaner,” using the present tense and collective pronoun. The accurate way to say either would have been, “we had a vacuum cleaner,” or “I have a vacuum cleaner.” Saying things correctly like that is such a simple thing, but so difficult to manage during grief—it seems so final, so absolute.

This isn’t a new revelation for me, of course. I talked about the background reality back in April of last year, when I said:
Over the past several weeks, I’ve realised that the question for me isn’t what will I do in my new life, but the more simple, “who am I?” After 24 years of being half of a WE, now I have to find out how to be just a ME. This is a much bigger deal than I could ever have guessed.
As I said on our seventh marriage anniversary back in October, there were several “days marking us becoming an us”, and in a separate post later that day I said:
I often still say us, our, and we, in the present tense, which is mostly out of a decades-long habit. Sometimes I remember to use the past tense, or use the pronouns for me alone. That much is evolving, but it’s still part of the fact that, in my mind, I think of us as an us, even though we’re no longer together physically.
That right there is the heart of the whole thing: It’s not easy to transition from being half of a couple. And yet, that was slowly happening for me, as those posts in April and October—six months apart—demonstrate.

These days, I refer to a thing as “my’, where not long ago I’d have said “our”, and that includes not just things that were once ours, but even some things that I thought of as being Nigel’s. The shift happened in part because I got tired of tripping over my words, especially when “our” no longer made much sense. It felt awkward at first, almost as if I was using words I’d just learned for the first time and wasn’t entirely sure I was using correctly. But I used them anyway.

The one thing I sometimes still struggle with is labels. I’m a widower and Nigel is my late husband, and, while both things are true, I’m very inconsistent about saying that. The subject of labels came up recently in one of the gay widower Facebook Groups I’m part of. People weighed in on whether they had/would change their Facebook relationship status to “Widowed” rather than, say, “Married”. That’s something I’ve never done—mine still says “married”—but it’s something that pops into my head from time to time when I see it on my About page. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter to me because it’s social media, not real life, and that means it’s thoroughly unimportant.

Some gay men in this situation point out that we fought too long and too hard for marriage equality to give up the label too quickly or easily, and I think they have a point. Many of them also say that they still consider themselves married, and I still consider myself married, too. Yet neither of those things prevent me from changing my relationship status on Facebook: Mere inertia does that.

One thing I hadn’t considered is that using “widowed” can open one up to scammers and users who prey on those they think are vulnerable, easy targets. I’m not at risk, for a lot of reasons, but it does give me pause when I think about any of my other, public descriptions. Again, it’s not enough to make me avoid changing the status, but when I think about it for a moment or two every now and then, I do stop for a second. Then, I think about something else, something more important to me.

And all of that demonstrates what I was talking about at the start of this post: “Tense, pronouns, and titles are all indicators of where someone is in their journey.” When I began my journey, I didn’t change pronouns or tense, and ended up saying things like “we have one of those” meaning I have it, but I could easily also say “had” in that same example for something I still have. It was a confusing time, so it’s no surprise that my word choice and tense was often confused and confusing.

Over time, things settled down, and I began to use pronouns referring to me (unless “we” was relevant, of course), and I talked about Nigel and our life in the past tense. It’s been an evolutionary change as I became more accustomed to my new reality. I (usually) get the tense “correct” now when I’m speaking because I’ve passed the point where I still cared about it.

So, too, the seriousness with which I took all that has also diminished over time. Where once I might fret over which pronoun or tense I used, now I take very little notice. The reason the whole label thing isn’t actually resolved is also because of this reality: I don’t really care about labels—actually, I don’t think I ever really did.

The grief process is a journey with some visible and identifiable markers along the way. In my experience, and that of many others, it seems, language, tense, pronouns, and titles are all indicators of where someone is in their journey, and the seriousness with which they deal with language can be, too.

It’s all part of the process.


Roger Owen Green said...

Of course, if you come across some scammers, you could take them for a ride for a time, mucking up their ruse. A friend of mine likes to do that. I don't have the time/energy myself.

Arthur Schenck said...

I kind of do that to a very limited extent. I play a game on my devices called "Words With Friends" and several times a month (sometimes a week…) I get strangers wanting to start a game with me. The photos are almost invariably of photogenic young women and they began playing days or maybe a week earlier. I accept, play my word, and Bam! They send me a private message. They changed the game to require players to accept messages from someone new, and I don't do that. The other person will then usually send one or two more messages and I don't read them (because I don't accept messages from strangers). They get tired and either resign from the game we're playing or time out (there's a limited amount of time to make your move—maybe a week?

This means that they do all that for nothing. I get the benefit of winning a game when they resign or time out (the game keeps a tally of my wins), and that's the case whether I was in the lead at the time or not. I also get points toward whatever the game's current daily challenges are. So, for me, it's a huge win—them, not so much.

I guess you could say I play with the scammers—literally.