It’s currently considered rude to use the term retarded when referring to people who are developmentally disabled, even though a few decades ago that was the only term used. The shift in language is important, because there is great stigma attached to the word, and it inappropriately lumps together a host of developmental disabilities with a wide range of effects. But there is a state the word conveys perfectly, which Adrienne uncovered in the months after Eric died.
“Hey, we’re retarded,” Adrienne said one day when we were sitting on the porch, unable to read, unable to garden, unable to do anything besides sit there and stare and talk now and then. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, retard means “1. A slowing down or hindering of progress.” Bingo. No progress other than breathing, a slow down in every function of our daily lives, like getting out of bed in the morning, cooking meals, doing dishes, making phone calls, getting back into bed at night. We were good at grieving and spending time together and not much else
Unfortunately, the definition of retarded still means “affected with mental retardation,” and the slang definition for retard is “a disparaging term for a mentally retarded person.” But retarded can also mean “relatively slow in mental, emotional or physical development.” Take out the “physical” and “development” and there it is. We were definitely relatively slow in our mental functioning and our emotional state was stuck in a permanent wail. We were bogged down with grief, slogging through each day, and unable to process even basic bodily signals like hunger and the need to sleep. Retarded.
What brings this up now? Although my sister’s diagnosis of a recurrence of cancer is nothing like Eric’s, and she is already on a treatment that has a good chance of working, just hearing the news of cancer returned in the body of someone I love set off the grief retardation tremors.
“I was retarded yesterday afternoon,” Adrienne told me, a couple days after we got the news. “I just sat on the couch and stared into space.”
And I have been retarded too. My reading dropped off, my concentration was shaky, and I felt this extra weight across my shoulders, making my already tight neck muscles like stretched strings. It’s eased up, which is how I can now see that it happened.
Retarded. I’m making a case to reframe the word in a way that isn’t disparaging to a diverse group of individuals, but rather affirming of a natural reaction to the tough side of life.