Aphasia hurts

A few months after Laura died I heard a podcast recording of a talk on grief by a Zen Buddhist teacher named Joan Halifax (http://www.upaya.org/dharma/on-grief-and-buddhism/).  Her comments helped me focus what I was experiencing at the time.  As you might expect from my previous posts, I also felt a kinship with someone who begins her talk with the etymology of the word “grief.”

“Grief” comes from the Latin word gravis, heavy, serious.  We talk about matters of grave importance.  By obvious connection the word also became associated with being pregnant.  Physicians still describe a woman who has more than one pregnancy as “multigravida.”  Joan Halifax uses this etymology to develop her own description of grief as being “pregnant with an absence.”  This phrase not only captures my own feelings of grief, even as they have evolved over the past four years, but it also entails a number of the philosophical implications of grief to be explored in this blog.  For this post I will just note two points. First, “pregnancy” is one of those nouns that gives a name for a great deal of activity.  Any woman who is or has been pregnant can tell you that there is nothing constant, unchanging during the so-called “state” of pregnancy.  Secondly, in later posts I will be exploring the question whether grieving is being pregnant with an absence, or pregnant with absence.

In posts to come shortly, we will examine how a Greek word for physical pain came to be used and translated into English as “grief” and “sadness.”  In her talk about grief, Joan Halifax outlines what she calls “five territories of grief.”  Aside from feeling grief over her loss of language, the multiple ways Laura hurt on account of her aphasia can also be seen in these five “territories.”  They are:

  • loss of a loved one
  • loss of identity/status
  • loss of relationship
  • loss of place or thing
  • loss of capacity.

Laura’s aphasia represented a significant loss of the capacity for speaking and reading.  For her, aphasia also meant losing her ability to communicate with the people she loved, her identity as an intellectual, her status as an attorney, and potentially her job and her colleagues at work.

I find that these territories encompass not only five occasions for suffering, but also five aspects of each instance of suffering.   Halifax’s five losses are both points or areas on a plane, and dimensions for a multidimensional space, all centered around an individual in relation to others. Additionally, even though multidimensional objects are hard to visualize, we are still primarily talking about seeing.

Loss occurs, however, with all six senses in the Buddhist system: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch, and mind.  (DN 33.2.2. (1), Walshe 498)  Each of these senses is a capacity that might be lost, and each gives us a unique capacity to experience loss.  With each of these senses we can locate ourselves and our dislocations, socially as well as spatially.  We use these senses to perceive “things” and to experience the loss of those “things.”

Aphasia” describes Laura’s losses in the dimensions of sight, hearing, and mind.  Her visual cut measured her progressive loss of sight.  In the dryer incident we encountered the pain she experienced related to smell.  In addition to her thirst, Laura’s taste was affected in ways such as not being able to enjoy her morning cup of coffee any more unless it was diluted almost to water.  Multiple needle sticks hurt Laura most in the dimension of touch.

I recognize that I’m using nouns to talk about how we act.  We will return to the noun “senses” in these posts about pain, i.e., how we hurt.

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