I must admit that I’ve never actually thought ‘there must be a German word for that’ – but that changed when I came across a copy of a highly entertaining book by Ben Schott this weekend. Courtesy of Schottenfreude I suddenly have words for a range of weird and unusual situations – and feel almost sure that there’s a word for being happy about that too. Amongst my favourites in the book is entlistungsfreude (the satisfaction achieved by crossing things off lists). Although this does bring strange little Miss Hawkins in A Five Year Sentence (Bernice Rubens) to mind and make me feel mildly anxious about the times that I write things onto lists just in order cross them off… But we’ve all done that, right?

Last Friday I really needed a word to encapsulate that moment when the world slips out from under you – and now I have leertretung (pronounced lair-treh-toong). Schott’s definition of this is to step down heavily on a step that isn’t there or, even more appropriately, void-stepping – which fits the bill perfectly.

It turned out to be quite a void-stepping sort of day, starting with the moment I clambered down my little kitchen ladder onto a step that wasn’t there. Technically it was actually there, I just managed to navigate right past it and indulge in a quick leertretung to get my heart rate up. Schott probably has a word for the sound I made as I hurtled to the ground – and for the one I made when I landed with a thud loud enough to bring the dog running, but I haven’t found them yet. I do know the Anglo-Saxon equivalents, though, and that’s probably good enough for all practical purposes.

Having fended off the worried dog and rejected her friendly are-you-okay face-licks, I pulled myself together in time to field a call from my mother-in-law. The news was that her lovely daughter was finally about to lose her battle against stage IV melanoma. She told me that Aj was fading fast and it would very probably be her last day with us. I don’t recall putting the phone down or walking to my study or dropping onto my desk chair to gaze vacantly and tearfully out the window, but that’s where I found myself a little while later.

We all provided what support we could throughout the day/evening, but there was really nothing anyone could do and Aj passed away at home on Friday night with her family nearby.

Is there a German word for coping with a sudden unexpected surge of sadness? Would knowing it make me feel any better about the loss of this vibrant, quirky young woman who has fought the melanoma monster so valiantly for the past two years? I think not. But knowing it might distract me for a brief moment. Perhaps void-stepping is descriptive enough, encompassing that feeling of disorientation and unexpected panic when the thing one expects to be there (a step, a family member) simply isn’t.

My heart aches for the loss this family is enduring. Aj was a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend. As a mother myself, I can only begin to imagine the complex layers of sadness, pain and regret at the loss of a child. They remain our kids even when they’re all grown up and have families of their own – and it defies logic for them to die before we do. I don’t have the right words – or enough words – to express this kind of sadness.

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