saudadeA friend of mine used to get teased for her declaration that she “misses” her children. It’s not that we’re all heartless robots incapable of empathy, laughing mercilessly at our friend because she is apart from her children. It’s just that she doesn’t actually have any children yet.

We found this concept virtually impossible to get our heads around, and I think it’s probably because there is no word for it in our language. My friend often searched desperately for a better way to express what she meant, but she couldn’t find one. She simply “missed” the kids that she didn’t yet have. It seemed odd to me, as someone who has never wanted children, but recently I’ve been feeling something similar. I don’t “miss” my kids, because I don’t believe I’ll have (or want) any. But there are other things. Other “misses”… kind of.

This morning, I happened to stumble across the perfect word to describe the feelings that have been haunting me lately. It isn’t an English word; it’s Portuguese. Saudade.

According to Wikipedia (which knows everything): Saudade describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. It often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return. It’s related to the feelings of longing, yearning.

I suppose this is a bit like homesickness, or nostalgia. It’s stronger, though. It’s deeper. It’s like an emptiness that you know can’t be filled by just going back home, or seeing that person again, or experiencing the things that you remember so fondly. You want to believe that it can be, but you know that it can’t. Not really.

SaudadeIn Portuguese, ‘tenho saudade tuas’, translates as ‘I have saudade of you’ meaning ‘I miss you’, but carries a much stronger tone. In fact, one can have ‘saudade’ of someone whom one is with, but have some feeling of loss towards the past or the future. 

I have had this kind of conversation with so many people recently, but we were never able to be more than vague and confused about what we meant. The extreme joy and pleasure of certain moments, laced right through to the core with the future pain of missing those moments. I don’t miss you now, because you’re here with me… but I will. I don’t yearn to be here now, because I am here… but I will. The expected pain, making the moment bittersweet, both detracts from said moment and makes it more precious.

SaudadeSaudade was once described as “the love that remains” after someone is gone. […] It can be described as an emptiness, like someone (e.g., one’s children, parents, sibling, grandparents, friends, pets) or something (e.g., places, things one used to do in childhood, or other activities performed in the past) should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence.

Separation. Death. Distance. Endings. Old friends. In our late teens, my friend Alison and I spent Friday evenings in my sister’s room and mine, getting ready to go out, sharing clothes and dancing to terrible pop music. Every time I hear “Tragedy”, I think of Ali, as if she ought to be with me every time I do that ridiculous dance. We’d go back to my parents’ house after our nights out and make a mess of the kitchen as we made a 2am snack before going to bed, giggling and shushing each other.


Friday nights, 1999.

She died last week. Cancer. She was a year younger than me. All those memories, they’re still there, they’re real, but the person in them has been taken away. Just “gone” doesn’t describe it accurately enough. Saudade comes closer.

Saudade. A constant feeling of absence, the sadness of something that’s missing, wishful longing for completeness or wholeness[…] It can also be felt for unrequited love, in that the person misses something he or she never really had, but for which might hope, regardless of the possible futility of said hope.

I suppose that’s the closest to what my friend said about “missing” her children. I feel it a lot, too, but it’s hard to put into words. Saudade. Something missing. Something, someone, more. Is it love? A deeper connection? A lover? A partner? Children? I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I don’t know. Perhaps that’s why I lurch catastrophically and wholeheartedly from one failed relationship to another, professing happiness as a single person only to hopelessly, helplessly follow doomed feelings for men I can’t have, or shouldn’t have. I settle for what they’ll give me, and tell myself it’s enough. Or I refuse to settle, and then feel… saudade. Empty. Lonely. Alone. Sad. Missing something. What do I want? What do I “miss”? Is it something I had once and then lost, or is it something I haven’t even had yet?

Saudade. It’s the perfect word for me right now, with no exact English equivalent.

Saudade: like a mixture of love, longing, distance, loss, nostalgia, pining, yearning, missing, sadness. Homesickness. Unfulfilled desire. Futility mixed with hope. “The presence of absence.”

Sometimes, English just doesn’t cut it.


4 thoughts on “Saudade

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