Hiraeth. You might not recognize the word but you’ve most likely experienced it.
It’s a Welsh word pronounced HEER-eyeth (roll the r).
A couple of years ago we looked at hiraeth as it pertains to a place. Today we’ll consider hiraeth as it pertains to a person.
The English language doesn’t have an apt word to describe hiraeth so we describe it in a round-about way. Think person as you read the following.
Hiraeth can include “a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness….” (University of Wales)
“The Portuguese have a word, ‘suadade,’ which is the only true cognate for hiraeth,” writes Pamela Petro. “[One meaning is] ‘the love that stays’ after someone…has gone away.”
Hiraeth has to do with a strong attachment you once had—but time, distance, death, or circumstance caused a separation and you’re keenly aware of that loss, and you yearn to reestablish that former intimacy.
A hiraeth person is a soul mate, a kindred spirit. A hiraeth companionship is something sacred God orchestrated. For reasons you can't possibly understand, His hand engraved that person's name onto your heart.
He used your hiraeth person to nurture your soul and spirit, to mysteriously shape you and define you and anchor you.
You and your hireath person touched a place inside that others couldn’t or wouldn’t. You shared secrets no one else could fathom. You were safe with each other. You handled each other with care. You never gave up on one another.
But keep in mind that hiraeth “…incorporates an aspect of impossibility: the pining for a home, a person, [or] a figure….” (Smith College)
Why impossibility? Perhaps because despite your fierce attachment to each other, the hand of God pointed you in different directions.
And because of that, the impossible distance between the two of you causes an ache,
You feel a pull, an insistent vacuum that demands to be filled.
But perhaps it will never be filled—certainly not if your hiraeth person has died.
And for those still alive? Well, sometimes God moves in mysterious ways.
In 1993, God moved two families away from a lovely town on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula: He sent one of my dearest friends, Gayle, and her husband to Papua New Guinea, and He sent my husband and me to East Africa. Yes, Gayle and I could keep in touch with email, but that would never really satisfy. When we said goodbye, I believed we’d never see each other again. For years I grieved the loss of Gayle’s close friendship.
“Sometimes you think a story is completed and all wrapped up,” writes Lawrence Kushner. “But then, decades later, something happens and you realize it’s not all done yet, it’s still in process.” (Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary)
I never could have imagined that 15 years later, both Gayle’s family and ours would move to Missouri—Missouri, of all places!—within a week of each other! For seven years we lived only two hours apart and had many opportunities to get together. What a gift!
Yes, sometimes, on rare occasions, God reunites two hiraeth friends.
But for the most part, I don’t think we can count on it. Finding one another again won’t likely happen.
In that case, you are left with hiraeth,
that yearning that buzzes and tingles,
it whispers to you, it nags at you—
and sometimes even shouts at you.
It insists that you must always hope
for one more conversation,
one more day together.
What are you to do if your separation is apparently permanent or your hiraeth person has died? Accept the impossible hiraeth-ness of your situation. Believe that God has a good plan for you.
Live each day confident that
you and your special person have
an enduring fellowship
known to only the two of you.
It’s real, maybe more real and true
than anything you’ve ever know to be real and true.
Years later, maybe decades later, you still call each other’s names in the silence, and you recognize each other’s voices, and you call back.
You still sing in perfect harmony, yet only the two of you hear the tune and know the words.
Despite the distance between you, you’re inseparable: Your togetherness remains strong and sure.
Who is your hiraeth person?
Maybe a grandparent, parent, or sibling;
your uncle, your aunt, or your child;
a teacher, church youth group leader, or high school sweetheart;
a childhood friend, classmate, or college roommate;
a Boy Scout leader, teammate, or coach;
a colleague, mentor, or professor;
a surfing buddy, nanny, or neighbor;
a spouse, a first love, or the one who got away.
Hiraeth is something bigger than the two of you.
Despite the distance, time, death, or circumstance
that separates you from your hiraeth person,
you are never far from each other’s thoughts.
You’re still in each other’s dreams.
You are still each other’s heartbeats,
the blood that pulses through your veins,
the oxygen you breathe.
You still hold each other close,
and there you are complete,
you are at home.
"It well may be,
That we will never meet again,
In this lifetime.
So let me say before we part,
So much of me,
Is made of what I learned from you.
You'll be with me,
Like a handprint on my heart.
And now whatever way our stories end,
I know you have re-written mine,
By being my friend....
Because I knew you,
I have been changed for good.
"For Good," Stephen Schwartz