The Things We Do Not Say: Talking About the Unspeakable

by Charlotte on April 20, 2014 · 37 comments

silence

“Silence is not the absence of something but the presence of everything”

Something happened this weekend. It was heart-rending and immense and the repercussions will reverberate for a long time. And all weekend I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about it, because that’s how I deal with stuff. But I can’t. For many reasons. But mostly because I don’t have the words. Sometimes the only thing you can say is nothing.

As I thought about my silence this weekend – gagged by my own emotions, clamoring to escape - I remembered how many times in my life silence has carried me, lifted me, protected me, even beautified me.Words do have power, yes, but silence is the force behind them. Sometimes silence is an animal lurking in the dark, a presence all its own. But there are so many many types of silence.  Silence can be the worst kind of heartbreak. But sometimes silence is a gift.

“I made a list of one hundred ways to kill you. And then I ate it so that I’d always have it inside me.” He, who claimed to love me, said that to me. And I answered him not at all. When I first wrote about being in an abusive relationship several of you questioned how I could not even reply much less not fight back or run away. At the time there was nothing to say – but I was already thinking of the way out. Sometimes silence is rebellion. 

When my daughter Faith was born – still - the silence was deafening. A baby should never be born quiet. But the hush in that delivery room was so full that there was no room for words. She was as present as any of my other children were at their births and I think I felt it more since there was none of the usual hustle and bustle that surrounds a new one. Everyone waited – a pregnant pause, forgive me – for my reaction. I had no words. I had to wait for others to give them to me. “She’s so beautiful.” “I think she has your nose.” “Here’s a blanket to keep her warm.” The next day I still had no words. I barely had breath. And then the funeral. Who has a funeral for a baby that hardly lived? What could I say about a person that nobody really knew but me and even then my knowledge was limited to cravings for frozen lemonade and kicks that felt like flailing fish? I wanted the funeral but I didn’t speak at it. She was silent; I was silent. I remembered my grandfather whose dying words were, “It’s so beautiful! Can you hear them singing?” We couldn’t, but he could. And I hope she could too. Sometimes silence is a song to carry you home.

Another day I stood in a crowded outdoor market, looking for a cousin I hadn’t seen in 20+ years thanks to a family feud that separated us as children. I had not seen a recent picture of him and yet as I scanned the people around me, my eyes lit on a man with a strong, stocky build, a shaved head, piercing blue eyes. Without saying a word, I knew it was him. He looked like my brother. He felt like my family. What happened all those years ago? I didn’t know. I still don’t, really. Sometimes silence is a terrible chasm. But as I hugged him and met his beautiful wife and daughter, the weight of the past slipping off our innocent shoulders, I knew it didn’t matter anymore. Sometimes silence is the bridge across.

Silence is hardest for me when it means biting my tongue (sometimes literally) and watching my children struggle. It would be so easy for me to give my son the answer to his math homework that he has been crying over for an hour, and yet then he wouldn’t learn how to do long division. Or how to persevere even when things don’t come easily. I am so tempted to jump into my kids’ fights – to prove to them that nothing will ever be fair and by golly if they think an extra three raisins on their sister’s plate is bad then just wait until their best friend steals their girlfriend in college – but then they wouldn’t learn how to negotiate emotional waters with other people. I want so badly to help Jelly Bean, so independent, to figure out this world and yet just tonight at bedtime she put her tiny hand over my mouth and said “Mommy shhhh! You go out now.” Because she needs the silence of her own thoughts without the baggage of mine. Sometimes silence is permission to not have all the answers.

So I asked her this weekend, as we sat on the hospital gurney together: of all the things that needed to be said, what did she want me to say? And she answered, “Nothing. I want you to say nothing.” Which was good because I had no advice, no wisdom, nothing to offer her but me. Sometimes silence is just sitting and being. A presence. A hand to hold. A shared grief. A knowledge that you are not alone in this. I will stay. I will always stay with you.

I’m a girl who likes to talk a lot. A lot a lot. I hate romantic comedies simply because 99% of the plot lines are based on the hijinks or horror that ensues when people don’t talk to each other. When in doubt I err on the side of saying too much rather than too little. But words are only as powerful as the silent spaces that contain them. If there is no silence, they run together in one frenetic blur. Learning to appreciate the power of silence – of stillness – is one of the great overarching lessons of my life. Sometimes silence is simply saying “I’m listening.” 

If this post doesn’t make any sense, I’m so sorry. I’m trying to work stuff out. How do I feel all the feelings, again? But if something here did resonate with you, please help me out – What does silence mean to you? Tell me about a time when you were silent. Either that, or tell me what I should say. Sometimes silence is the answer to the prayer you didn’t think anyone heard.

Updated to add: Thank you for all your concern! Just wanted to say that my kids and I are all totally fine! The “her” in the 3rd to last paragraph isn’t Jelly Bean, no worries! I just wrote that badly:)

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Lyndal April 20, 2014 at 11:29 pm

This was a beautiful post – a heart wrenching, strong, beautiful post. And I get it; as an introvert I get it… When I’m crying and trying not to, I just want my friends to sit beside me, no words just being there. So much of the time I just want presence, because I have enough words in my head. I hope you find words you are seeking, or the answers and strength in the silence.

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:06 am

Thank you Lyndal! This is exactly what I needed to hear: “So much of the time I just want presence, because I have enough words in my head.”

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Katrina April 20, 2014 at 11:51 pm

No need to apologize! You have the courage to share your innermost thoughts when many like myself are afraid to. This post reminded me of a time when I was in 12 step support group for food addiction where my sponsor told me that much of my recovery will come from being silent. By taking the time to be still & quiet, I will find the answers I’m seeking and will actually be able to hear & feel beyond the noise.

I also believe that we are all connected and at times like you describe, no words are needed. Just being there, they will know exactly what you are saying in a touch of your hand, a smile or a hug.

Big hugs to you my friend!

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:27 am

Thank you Katrina! It sounds like your 12-step was a great experience and I really appreciate you sharing your experience with me:)

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Azusmom April 21, 2014 at 12:27 am

Sending love and hugs and prayers to you, dear friend!

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Carla April 21, 2014 at 4:59 am

SO SO MUCH LOVE AND REMINDERS IM HERE IN YOU NEED ME.

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Melly Testa April 21, 2014 at 5:34 am

I have been learning about the value of not talking. I too am a talker. For a long while, I have thought that talking it out, processing, was the best way. Now? Not so much. I now think that perhaps the ideas rolling around in my head are better left, unsaid. I think perhaps, not saying things, not putting half formed ideas out into the world, not working ideas out to completion outside the confines of my mind, is better. It is as if words had been a personal balm, and now that I am not putting them out there, they do not have as much power or importance to me, and my experience feels more open to other, not formed or interpretted by me and my thoughts, ideas or view.

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Laura P. April 21, 2014 at 7:12 am

You sound like me. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to burst though. Bit I have noticed a certain graciousness or real humility when I stay silent.

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:29 am

This is beautiful. And just what I needed to hear. Thank you Melly!!

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Melissa April 21, 2014 at 5:47 am

Silence for me is trying to figure out my own feelings. I can be a talker but I can also be silent. It’s not a good or bad thing, it’s just me. Take the time you need to process, even if that’s a slow journey. Good luck on your journey and thank you for sharing.

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:32 am

“It’s not a good or bad thing, it’s just me. ” Thank you so much for this reminder Melissa:) I still tend to categorize my feelings as good or bad (bad meaning I wish I wasn’t feeling this).

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Paula April 21, 2014 at 6:06 am

Charlotte, From one extrovert to another, and from one parent whose lost a child to another, you nailed this! The wisdom of your own life’s experience shines.
You are precisely right when you say it’s permission to not have the answers, I will stay with you and listen. Those three things are powerful, beautiful gifts you offer.
*hugs* to you as you work through this.

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:34 am

Thank you Paula – both for the reminder that gifts come in all forms and for the hugs:)

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Abby April 21, 2014 at 6:10 am

This post has me completely worried and stressed for you and your family, so I hope whatever is going on is quickly resolved and that you can find yourself some peace. But with that said, I totally get it. Despite being quite open on my blog and using humor as my defense, I’m actually much more introverted in my own personal life. I don’t need always need the big groups of support or the sympathy with things, but rather the time to internally process a situation and the comfort of knowing that I can–and will–talk about it eventually and that others are there to support me. We’re here for you. Much love, my friend.

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:52 am

No worries Abby! We are all doing good here – my kids and I are all fine! Sorry to be so vague – I didn’t mean to worry anyone! And I love this: ” but rather the time to internally process a situation and the comfort of knowing that I can–and will–talk about it eventually and that others are there to support me.” :)

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Jess April 21, 2014 at 6:41 am

They say silence is golden. And in many cases, it is better than words. Actions speak louder than words. My dad received a blessing once and while there were words, there was no spirit. But in the silence…. That was what was needed. Praying for you. xx

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:52 am

Beautifully said, Jess. Thank you!!

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Laura P. April 21, 2014 at 7:14 am

I hope you’re alright. Please know that I’m thinking of you.

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:53 am

Thank you Laura! We are all doing good here – my kids and I are all fine! Sorry to be so vague – I didn’t mean to worry anyone!

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Heather C April 21, 2014 at 7:23 am

I am sorry that this weekend was heart rending and I hope that whatever it is feels better soon. I have definitely had times in my life when I am so upset that all I can do is be silent. Almost as if I need to climb inside myself because that feel like the only way I can deal with or process it all. Sometimes you just need to sit with the pain or sorrow and that is perfectly okay.

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:53 am

Love this: “Almost as if I need to climb inside myself because that feel like the only way I can deal with or process it all. Sometimes you just need to sit with the pain or sorrow and that is perfectly okay.” Thank you so much for that reminder!

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Jill April 21, 2014 at 8:00 am

Charlotte, I’m so sorry for your hurt. Sometimes silence can say much more than any words.

Once, way back in the day, I had my heart broken by a stupid boy. I’m not much of a talker (I can express everything eloquently in my mind, but once the words hit my tongue I choke and can’t quite get it out the way I’d like), but I ran across the street to my friend’s house to ask advice, expecting her to tell me what to do. Instead, she remained silent as I spilled my guts out to her – she never said anything, which prompted me to keep talking. When I finally finished, she just held her arms open and wrapped me in a hug. It was exactly what I needed. So sometimes silence can be the only thing needed to convey everything.

Again, I’m so sorry you are hurting. Treat your heart gently while it heals. (((hugs))))

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:55 am

Aw this made me a little teary! What a beautiful story about a beautiful friendship – thank you so much for sharing this with me:)

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crabby mcslacker April 21, 2014 at 8:36 am

I too am concerned and hoping you’re all ok and wishing there was something I could do to help bring you comfort. You give so much to so many it’s hard to see you hurting.

Sending hugs and hope and warm thoughts!

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:56 am

Thank you Crabby! We are all doing good here – my kids and I are all fine! Sorry to be so vague – I didn’t mean to worry anyone!

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Pubsgal April 21, 2014 at 8:53 am

^ Crabby said *exactly* what I wanted to say, so all I can really add to that it “ditto from me.”

Silence can have so many aspects to it. One that I find important is silence when I’m feeling angry or defensive, because I know what comes out of my mouth in a heated moment cannot be unsaid. If it’s important to do so I will circle back when I’ve calmed down and talk about it.

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:57 am

Aw thank you! We are all doing good here – my kids and I are all fine! Sorry to be so vague – I didn’t mean to worry anyone! And thank you for this reminder: ” One that I find important is silence when I’m feeling angry or defensive, because I know what comes out of my mouth in a heated moment cannot be unsaid.” definitely needed to hear this!

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Pubsgal April 21, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Relieved to hear that you & your kids are okay – thanks for reassuring us on those points! I will continue to keep you in my thoughts & prayers as you endure whatever it is that is happening. I know that as a blogger, there are parts of our stories that aren’t ours to share, even if we are bursting with thoughts and emotions.

(And oops, looks like my previous comment posted twice!)

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Pubsgal April 21, 2014 at 8:54 am

Crabby said *exactly* what I wanted to say, so all I can really add to that it “ditto from me.”

Silence can have so many aspects to it. One that I find important is silence when I’m feeling angry or defensive, because I know what comes out of my mouth in a heated moment cannot be unsaid. If it’s important to do so I will circle back when I’ve calmed down and talk about it.

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KDA April 21, 2014 at 8:57 am

I’m so worried for you. the idea of Jelly Bean sitting on a gurney just breaks my heart. My prayers are with you.

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Charlotte April 21, 2014 at 9:58 am

No worries – my kids and I are all fine! It wasn’t Jelly Bean I was with in the hospital – it was someone else. I wrote that badly. Thank you so much for your prayers!!

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Darwin April 21, 2014 at 9:09 am

Job 6:25 “How forcible are right words!”

Hebrews 13:16 “But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.”

In Ephesians Paul said to “speak the truth in love.”

Neal L. Maxwell said: “We worry (and understandably so) that some communications will only produce more distance. But silence is very risky too….

Opening the windows of the soul helps us to build healthy relationships. But if those windows are always closed or the blinds are drawn, it is difficult to help….”

Communication is key.

Communication takes thought and effort.

(This next part is by memory from something I read.)
It takes patience, and our time, for a wise sharing of emotions, feelings and concerns.

Listening is more than being quiet. Listening is much more than silence. Listening requires undivided attention.

The time to listen is the time when someone needs to be heard.

The time to deal with a problem is when the person has the problem.

The time to communicate is when our interest and love are vital to the one who needs our ear, our heart, our help, our empathy.

We should all increase our ability to ask questions in a comfortable way, and then listen, as this all part of loving.

Too often we are inclined to let people assume how we feel about them, or a particular circumstance. Often wrong conclusions are reached.

This aspect bugs me in movies as well. I love WHITE CHRISTMAS, but at the point where Rosemary Clooney jumps to the wrong conclusions and doesn’t honestly speak about her concerns to Bing Crosby when he asks her what is wrong…I often have to stop the movie for awhile.

Sometimes I make it until she storms out of Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye’s engagement party.

Sometime I even make it to the point where The General says he wants to give her and Bing a “good talking to”…

But the overall fallout…her letter to Vera-Ellen that Danny Kaye reads…and the bewildered and pained look on Bing’s face when he sees her get on the train and leave…

Arrgh.

Silence may be a place to start…but it is not a place to stop.

It is something to get beyond.

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RegularCinderella April 21, 2014 at 9:44 am

Thank you for these words, Charlotte.
I have a hard time being silent. I need that space to be filled with something–silence is too overwhelming. Silence leaves too much room for panic. Too much room for tears.

I picked a friend up a few weeks ago. She was having a medical emergency and I was taking her to get help. When I saw her, waiting for me outside her apartment building, it was clear she’d been crying and I knew she was in a lot of pain. She got into my car and I, not knowing what else to say, told her she had to wear her seatbelt. I helped her put it on and filled our drive with ridiculous babble, telling her how’d I’d gotten lost on the way to her place because I took the wrong turn and how she had called me at the perfect time because my husband had just gotten home and could put the kids to bed. I told her how my great uncle had died that day and about the conversation I’d had with my grandma. None of it was important, or at least not more important than what she was dealing with at the moment…but I couldn’t make myself shut up. I was worried for both of us that if I stopped, even for a minute, one of us would break. I knew she didn’t want me to see her cry and I wasn’t sure I could even handle seeing her that way.
I don’t know what to do with silence.

Love you.

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Kathryn April 21, 2014 at 3:23 pm

Silence is rest to me. No listening, interpreting, or formulating replies, just rest.

Much love to you and your family in the difficult times you’re having xx

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Amy @ Run Mom Run April 21, 2014 at 4:49 pm

I talk all the time, unless I’m struggling. Something about tough times makes me want to finally close my flapping mouth.

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Lisa April 23, 2014 at 8:08 pm

Yes, this resonated with me. After our youngest was born still, it took all I could do to talk in a very quiet voice. Talking was excruciating. Your description of the room after a little one is born still is so right on! It struck me at the time and continues to.

I try to be quiet because sometimes talking gets me in trouble. Or if something REALLY is bothering me. I don’t talk, I go inside.

As to whoever ‘her’ is…I am glad that it isn’t JB, but I feel bad for whoever it is.

Amazing post. You have been given a gift of words, Charlotte. Wish I knew you in real life!

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