Someone who loves is a lover. Someone who fails is a failure. Someone who disappoints is a disappointment. Someone who drinks is a drinker. Someone who learns is a student. Someone who teaches is a teacher. But what is someone who experiences a loss?
There certainly are a lot of adjectives to describe that person—sad, despondent, bereft, grief-stricken, let down, wounded, hurt, scared, worried—but no nouns come to mind. There are nouns that describe certain kinds of loss. A woman who loses her husband is a widow. Someone who loses a limb is an amputee. But I cannot find that definitive word that encompasses the common life experience of loss. Or more specifically, my loss.
The quest for this particular word started as an exercise from a book I'm reading. The objective was to describe myself using nouns--no adjectives allowed! I came up with daughter, friend, mother, divorcée (silly word, but it is the noun to describe a divorced person), dancer, and writer. But I also wanted a word that encompassed emotional trauma. Without a noun to represent that part of my life, my list doesn’t describe me completely.
When I pushed my son into the world nine years ago, I lost the motherhood I’d hoped for. Lost isn’t a noun, but it encompasses that feeling of not remembering how to breathe or sleep or eat. It encompasses the frustration around having to digest medical jargon. It encompasses the nauseating ache when wandering the hospital looking for the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It encompasses the shock and disbelief after doctors said my baby only had half a heart and needed several operations. It encompasses that feeling of knowing that every dream I ever had around parenthood was just that—a dream. Yes, I know, birth certificates don’t come with return or exchange policies nor do marriages come with any kind of money-back guarantee.
Life is filled with loss, and when we are faced with it, we are, for a period of time (or forever) something. We’d hoped for something, dreamed of something, and then were given something else. What is that something called?
A friend suggested the noun I’m looking for is survivor. I like that suggestion, in theory. Someone who survives a loss, whatever its magnitude is a survivor. But that word implies past tense, and that the survivor has moved through the loss. But what are we while we’re are in the middle of that emotional trauma? While we are struggling with the loss? Or floundering as a result of a loss? A struggler? A flounder-er? A mourner? We are probably a struggling, floundering, mourning daughter/ friend/ mother/ divorcée/ dancer/ writer. Those are all valid adjectives, but I’m searching for something more definitive than a word that can be easily swapped out by flipping through the pages of a thesaurus.
I cannot let it go. I want to name that thing so that I can complete my list, creating a full and accurate description of me. My loss is just as much a part of me as the way I leap and spin during dance class. It is a part of my essence, the way that writing is part of the way I communicate. A list describing me without including a word around loss, is like trying to describe a sunrise without the word light.
Sure my loss has changed over the years as my son has grown, and it no longer swallows me with every inhale or haunts me every time I close my eyes. It’s chronic, not acute. The noun I'm looking for, I believe, is human.
To be fair, human does not technically complete the exercise. Being human means many things, one of which is someone who experiences loss. But considering human just might be the right noun reminded me that my loss isn’t unique or any more extraordinary than my friend’s loss when her baby died. It isn’t any more unique than my other friend’s losses with each of her failed fertility treatments. My loss isn’t any more painful or stressful than my friends' who have children along the autism spectrum. Experiencing loss is part of what unites us as humans. It’s also part of what makes us individuals and steers us as we identify with all the other nouns on our lists.