A few weeks ago I read a blogpost titled ‘Forever 19 or What if?’ by Rebecca Carney, in her blog Grief:A Woman’s Perspective. Like with everything Rebecca writes, her words resonated in me, they made me think. This one post, however, made me think especially long and hard about language, not just the words in her post but rather about how our daily grammar has changed.
You see, I can't help being a linguist. A philologist. I have taught English and Spanish as second languages for many years. I have also been a translator and an interpreter for many years. I take notice of language and grammar. I perceive changes when they occur.
The conditional perfect is defined as “a grammatical construction that combines the conditional mood with perfect aspect”. One typical example of the conditional perfect in English is ‘I would have done things differently’. Thus, the conditional perfect is “used to refer to a hypothetical, usually counterfactual, event or circumstance placed in the past, contingent on some other circumstance (again normally counterfactual, and also usually placed in the past)”. All of those quotes are from Wikipedia.
For most people, the verbal tenses of their daily lives are both the present and the future. The rhythms of the everyday dictate their lives: the things they do or are doing at a certain time of the day, but also the things they plan to do or wish to do in the short and the medium term.
But for the parents of a dead child, their present and their future have been truncated. Their lives are anchored in the past, in a past that has become a ‘forever’. Forever 19. Forever a young man full of promise, like Jason Carney. Forever 6 years and 9 months. Forever a schoolgirl enjoying her first real holiday on the tropical sands of a paradisiacal beach in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, like Clea. Forever.
The conditional perfect is the verbal tense that defines the daily life of the grieving parent. We no longer think about our child in the future tense. We think about them – a lot, constantly, continually – but we do not think about what they will be doing in months or in years. We think about them and use the past tense as we reminisce about their interrupted lives. We think about them and use the conditional perfect as we muse over who they would have been, about what could have been, what should have been, what might have been.
For the parents of a deceased child, “What if?” is a ubiquitous question in our lives. And the answer is always in the conditional perfect, never in the future, forever in the past.