After the present tense – loss and language
My dad was a big fan of the Rolling Stones. He didn’t start to dislike them however, he did pass away.
Death always comes unexpectedly. From one second to another someone ceases to exist and it’s hard for words to keep up with that, especially the tense you use to talk about them. Talking about my dad in the present tense has been the standard for so many years, therefore it was very difficult to switch to the past tense in conversations I had about him. Uttering sentences that were true just moments ago (he loves the Beatles) suddenly seem far away from reality.
Language is always subject to change, but it can never be as quick as teaching yourself new sentence structures within one day. It’s similar to deciding to stop drinking coffee one morning: the habit that has formed over the years leads to withdrawal symptoms and often you find yourself drinking another coffee.
So more often than not, I ended up talking about my dad in the present tense after he died. ‘My dad is a teacher’ – no, he was. Am I still able to use the present tense now that he passed away? A friend who lost her mother started wondering: ‘Why does it feel like I’m lying by using the present tense to talk about someone who died?’
By becoming aware of the past tense I was using when talking about my dad, in my memories, he slowly started to disappear as a living person as well. I was forming a new habit by using the past tense. The length of time he is no longer alive is getting longer and longer while my sentences that contain past tenses become more common. Reality is asking for a new kind of language, but at the same time, that language is creating a new reality. This thought reminded me of our unease when talking about loss because simply by speaking the words out loud makes it more true, even though it has already happened.
By using the present tense to talk about the deceased a reality is being created that doesn’t really exist. Does that explain why using those words feels like lying sometimes?
Nevertheless, if we want to bring our lost ones back to life for just a moment, we can choose to ignore this feeling. If I want to, my dad can still both be a teacher and a big fan of the Rolling Stones.