My best friend had ovarian cancer in high school. She battled for two years from the time she was 16 to the time she was 18 before finally being declared cancer free. Recently, we were watching TV together, and someone mentioned the word cancer. Since she was heavily into planning for the Relay for Life, a cancer fundraiser, that word stuck in my head and my heart.
Several nights later, I was at church, and the pastor made an off-handed comment about suicide. It wasn’t a direct thing, just something about how bleak our life would be without God. At that moment a new understanding dawned on me about the power of words, and in particular, our words.
You see, my older brother died last year at the age of 42. It wasn’t a car accident or cancer. He died by his own hand. Suicide. Ever since then, I’ve heard the word “suicide” very differently than I ever had before.
Not that it was not a scary word to me before. I’ve had several close friends go through times that brought them to the brink. So suicide has been in my life vocabulary for a long time but not the way it is now.
Now, when I hear that word or references to it, it jars me like no other word out there. It makes me cringe and pray no one else around me had to hear it. In one second I can have a flood of memories and feelings come back to me—like that morning when I got the call, the house when I got there, the family, him lying in the coffin (that one I still have immense difficulty processing), and on and on. All of these are accompanied by the what now’s? With three children, what will he miss? How are they doing? How can I help in a situation that’s not fixable?
All of these and more come flooding back in with one heartbeat in the utterance of a single word.
The trouble is, I never know when this word is going to pop up and with it all the stuff it brings up as well.
Thinking about this later, that’s when I remembered my friend, and I started wondering if the word “cancer” does to her what the word “suicide” does to me. When she hears it, do all those memories come flooding back? Does she question why it was her and why then? Does she wonder why she made it back into the land of the living and others have not?
I suspect she does though I haven’t gotten the courage up to ask her yet.
Then I began thinking about other words and what they do to people. Words like: divorce and depression and abuse and overdose and alcohol or drugs. Maybe you know what I’m talking about. Maybe you know words that aren’t even on this list. Words like: miscarriage or unemployment. Words like: bankruptcy or accident.
What I want to say to all of those silently grieving or hurting over these words is, please know that you are not alone. Don’t think that you are the only one who processes these words so very differently than everyone else. You’re not.
But also please remember that there are others among you, others you might not even realize who are doing the same thing with the words you speak. It is impossible to know all the details or even the situations involved, but please be aware that your words have power. And being sensitive to them is a step in the right direction for us all.
What words stop you in your tracks with memories you thought were gone or healed? Maybe if we talk about those words, we can all become more conscious of them and other words like healing and help and love can begin to take over. The conversation has to start somewhere.