Bone Monsters And The Evolution of Vocabulary

In the spirit of Halloween, here’s a spooky story.  And because I am who I am and can’t help myself, there are a few thoughts on dying that follow. (It’s like a tic.)

Without further ado I give you:

My Son And The Bone Monster

One night long ago, on a full moon in July, Father was away on a business trip leaving me, his pregnant wife, and our just-turned-three-year old son alone in the house to sleep.  It was a warm and peaceful summer night, not the kind where spectral things usually wake and wander, yet my sleep was restless and I woke up several times during the night to glimpse something shadowy passing down the hallway outside my bedroom door.  Each time I shook it off and went back to sleep, thinking it was just my imagination playing tricks on me.

In the morning I was jolted from slumber by the high-pitched screaming of my son, and I threw back the covers, leaped out of bed, and ran down the hall before I was even half-awake.

I entered the room to find him wide awake and sitting bolt upright, his back pressed hard against the headboard of his bed.  The bright morning sun streamed through the windows illuminating the entire room, yet he was looking into the empty corner near the foot of his bed as though he could see something.

As I approached the bedside he dragged his eyes away from the corner, looked at me and screamed, “It’s a bone monster!  A BONE MONSTER!!”  And I, of course, responded by doing what every good mother does; I tried to reassure him that nothing was there.  That the suspicious corner was actually empty, that bone monsters don’t really exist, that he’d just had a nightmare.

But he only shook his head in frustration, looked me straight in the eye, and said in a low, urgent, rational kind of voice, “No, Mommy.  Not that kind. This is a REAL bone monster!!!”  His voice rose back up to a scream by the last word and he raised his arm and pointed into the empty corner, as though the proof was right there before both our eyes.

That did it for me. The hair rose on the back of my neck and I climbed onto the bed, scooped him into my arms, and pressed my own back against the headboard.  I flashed back to the strange impressions I’d had during the night, of shadowy things passing down the hallway toward his room, and the coincidence gave me just enough pause to quit telling him he wasn’t experiencing something.  His terror was certainly real.  He’d done a remarkable job for a three-year old of communicating that he understood what a nightmare was and that what he was currently experiencing was something else.  I respected the effort and decided to bail on a rational approach and go with maternal instinct instead.  Here’s what She had to say:

Honey, he’s facing a monster here.  Imaginary or not, are you gonna let this thing fuck with your child?

Well, not when you put it like that.  No.

So I planted myself firmly on the bed, gripped my trembling son against my chest, and crooned ferocious words of protection into his ears.  It’s not gonna get you, sweetheart.  I won’t let it.  I will rip that freaking monster bone from bone…tear its head off, smash it down in the street, and run over it with the car a million times…before I’ll ever, EVER, let it get anywhere near you.  And trust me, I meant every word.

I continued along these lines until Bone Monster seemed to throw in the towel and leave.  I realized we’d won when my son suddenly relaxed, looked up, and told me he was hungry. Hallelujah.  We got up, got dressed, and traipsed out to the kitchen to make pancakes.

As far as I know, the Bone Monster has never returned.

Now, I don’t know why my son and I saw the things we did that night but, since it never happened again, not knowing doesn’t matter.

What’s more interesting to me is that my son called what he was seeing a Bone Monster.  Frankly, the term confused me at first.  (And apparently, only me.  Everyone else who hears the story immediately recognizes that he’s describing a skeleton.)  But when I realized what he’d done…that in lieu of the word skeleton which he hadn’t learned yet, he’d put two words together that he did know, bone and monster…the linguistic elegance of the feat just about knocked my socks off.

Think about it for a second.  The two words he chose had a lot of depth.  Both are multiple use, ancient words that have existed in pretty much every language since the dawn of time.  Bone is steeped in anthropological and folklore traditions as well as modern medical and scientific understanding while monster, still used to describe everything from childhood scary things to giant construction equipment to the heads of despotic political regimes, is quite simply one of the greatest words of all time.  (In fact, with the emotional relief its capable of delivering, I think monster ranks right up there with obscenities.  It can be that powerful.)

So separately they pack a punch, but putting these two words together created a description that was unbelievably sophisticated.  It conveyed not only a physical description of what he was seeing (a collection of bones-sans-flesh that were still arranged in the original shape of some kind of creature) but the intense emotional impact as well (monster–communicating supernatural animation, malice, and immediate threat.)

And it was all because he didn’t know the word skeleton yet.

But children do this all the time, you might argue.  So what?  And of course you’d be right.  Small children are wizards of language right out of the gate, which is probably why we usually take the sophisticated achievement that it is for granted.  I honestly don’t know why I woke up for a minute and saw it this time, but I did.  I goggled.  Positively gaped.

But here’s where it gets even more interesting.  The thing is; It’s not just kids who do this, falling back on old words to describe new thingsIt’s what we all do, whenever we try to communicate about rare experiences. Common names don’t exist yet for uncommon things so if we’re going to try and talk about them anyway, we always have to cobble together existing language in a new way.

And, finally, here it comes…

This is what I feel like I’m up against when trying to talk about my work with the dying.  I mean, I have to use the word dying.  I have to.  Physiologically, that’s just what’s happening.  But it’s also a misleading word, because when I say dying most people hear horror + terror + suffering + death, and then they shut down and that’s the end of the conversation.

For a lot of people dying is the Bone Monster.

But it means something different to me.  After working around it a while, caring for and learning from the people who were doing it, the word dying gained more grace and lost some darkness.  When I say it now there’s still horror in it, of course, but there’s also something strange and luminous involved that takes my breath away.  Its terror is countered by first hand observation of our inherent reservoir of courage, and its suffering is buoyed by my discovery of unsuspected strength.

And death?  It’s still there, too.  But now its death + the dawning awareness that our lives are so irrevocably entwined…our dreams, emotions, cells, and breath are so deeply woven into the physical fabric of the world itself…that on some weird, tangible level that I can see and touch and smell and hear and yet still can’t name, we’re indestructible.

I guess for me, dying is the whole package now, instead of just its worst parts.  I think of it as both Bone Monster and everything that protects us from bone monsters at the same time.  It reminds me of my son’s bedroom that morning; where there was a terrifying source of darkness in the corner, but there was also a fierce, radiant bond of love on the bed. That radiant bond exists in the rooms of the dying, too, and I saw it over and over again, a benign force that seems to emanate from everyone involved but also from the environment.  Almost as though it’s structural, like something we’re made out of.

Sorry, that’s the best I can do.  I don’t have adequate language to describe it except in the most primitive terms, which is incredibly frustrating and part of the reason why I started this blog.  I realize I keep harping on this over and over again.  I think it’s just my way of trying to work out some viable language.

Currently, we have hundreds of common ways to describe the horrible aspects of dying but almost none that describe the beauty involved.  It’s no wonder so many people are still dying bad deaths.  Maybe if we start developing some language for the good parts, too, it’ll get easier to start building good deaths for everyone?

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

10 responses

  1. Wow,
    This was really great. I hope you continue to talk about the sweeter parts of dying…and about what a “good” and “bad” death are. It helps…

    • It’s a challenge trying to define a “good” or “bad” death, even though I’ve seen both and they were easy to identify as such. But you’re right, I should give it a try. It would be a really great place to start.
      BTW, how’s the new cold remedy working out? 🙂

  2. childrens perceptions of death/The unknown/trauma/monsters is an interesting topic…. I remember being 8 (the age where death is very real to kids) and crying myself to sleep every night cos I realised that my grandmother might die one day….

    awful thing being a child sometimes eh?

  3. I didn’t realize that’s the age where children commonly start grappling with the reality of death. That’s how old I was when my father was fighting in the Vietnam War and I had a similar experience of emotional trauma in the night.
    And yeah, I’m not sure who first painted childhood as idyllic but they must have had amnesia.

  4. For what it’s worth, your blog, along with life’s circumstances, are helping me to overcome the automatically dark schema that the words death and dying evoke. Who knows how strong and positive I will be when death & dying coming knocking on my personal door, but for now, I feel much more peaceful about the topic.

    I remember coming across a dead lamb’s carcass in the barnyard of a ranch my mother used to visit when I was a child. I was quite young, probably about 5, when I saw that little dead thing lying in the manure. It startled me. I did not go close to investigate, as I would in later years. Instead, I kept the vision inside my head and for several years after that, the vision of that little corpse would invade the dark recesses of my mind while I was trying to go to sleep. (Yes, I may have been the first child insomniac!) The shiver of fear that vision produced still makes my stomach flip. I was afraid to go to sleep, afraid that perhaps I wouldn’t wake up, and afraid of what it would be like to be that little corpse in the manure…I was afraid of “nothingness.”

    • And this was at the age of 5? Developmentally speaking, that’s pretty dang young to be dealing with existential issues of that magnitude!!! I don’t think it’s necessarily uncommon though. It’s very easy to freak the little ones out which is why I think it’s so important for adults to develop a context around dying and death that’s more peaceful than terrified.

      I was a child insomniac too! I was regularly awake for three or more hours in the middle of the night while growing up…which gave me this whole other secret, nighttime life that nobody knew about. I pondered and learned amazing things, having that much spare time to imagine the universe and beyond.

      And thanks for letting me know that this blog is helping somewhat! What a great gift for me. That’s all I really want to do is ease some of the fear. Hey, if you ever get a free moment, is there anything specific I’ve written about that’s helped? I feel like I’ve been flinging everything but the kitchen sink at it…it’d be nice to know what’s actually sticking to the wall. 🙂

  5. ‘Bone monster’ is quite a frightening term, very unsettling.

    I was recently reading a post from Sarah at regarding the death of a swimmer at the jaws of a rogue Great White. I mentioned that the thought of being eaten alive, as a thinking, sentient being, is about the most terrifying way one can die.

    I know though, that the thought of death is just as terrifying in other ways to other people, particularly in relation to the dread and horror of leaving loved ones, possibly dependent loved ones, behind to deal with life without their love and help.

    Fear and the unknown go hand in hand I guess, things that adults can’t see but children can, things that are ‘other’, outside our usual conscious awareness, but often felt.

    Religion was a way to deal with this, I suppose, but now that’s being largely ignored in society, what else is there to take it’s place and comfort us for our journey?

    I’ve seen one or two things myself, Dia…

    • The traditions for dealing with the unseen have been around for as long as the unseen have, and religion dealt with it but then so did most local customs. I love folklore and old folk stories, partly because they’re packed with cryptic information about what’s going on in those kind of circumstances and how to deal with it. We’re living in an interesting age right now where the cultural mindset is just to deny that anything is happening at all. I guess it’s the pendulum swinging to the other extreme. It would be so interesting if the scientific field would admit that something’s going on and then try and shed some light on it, too…but maybe that’s just me. I think I must have both a scientist and a shaman living up in my head…I’m always hungry to build bridges back and forth between things.

      That’s fascinating that being eaten alive is a “worst” for you. For my husband it’s being buried alive. I think mine is probably to be mangled in machinery. I once took a college course studying horror literature (kinda scary) and had to read a book of short stories by Stephen King (I only got halfway through it. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon but I was still terrified and had to go out and find people to be around for a few hours until I came back to earth. 🙂 ) The one thing I remember from the prologue was him saying that every person has a type of fear that’s most central to their subconscious, and that I’d find out what mine was by the kinds of stories that scared me the most. It was a fascinating little personal study and I was quite surprised to find out it was the stories about machinery gone wrong that scared me the most!

      Refrigerators still freak me out. (Kidding.)


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