I was talking to someone the other day, and they described a visit to a battlefield where thousands of people died during the Civil War. They were looking for a better word than "melancholy" to describe that specific sort of historical empathy that comes from visiting such a place.

Is there a more precise word to describe the feeling you have when you are at a place where a great loss or tragedy occurred?


I felt really [word] when visting Normandy. Thinking of how many people died there really hit me hard.

  • Oddly enough, given the example involving Normandy, Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) contains an entry for an (evidently) anglicized German word that seems on point here: "weltschmerz n, often cap [G, fr Welt world + Schmerz pain] 1 : mental depression or apathy caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state 2 : a mood of sentimental sadness." But really, "world pain" would be a better definition, I think.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 4:45

8 Answers 8


I'll throw 'haunted' into the mix. Not haunted in the sense of "visited by spirits, imaginary beings, apparitions, spectres, etc.", although that common meaning may figure in the background of the sense conveyed, but rather haunted in this transfigurative sense:

Of memories, cares, feelings, thoughts: To be visited by these; to have these come up or present themselves as recurrent influences or impressions, esp. as causes of distraction or trouble.

(Paraphrased from the OED, haunt, v.)

This word works very well in your example:

I felt haunted when visting Normandy. Thinking of how many people died there hit me hard.

  • I like this a lot; I think it does a great job of communicating that the feeling is imvoked by an external force, versus a more internal motivation. Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 3:25

Somber communicates a sense of seriousness and depression:

a : of a serious mien : grave < somber dignitaries >
b : of a dismal or depressing character : melancholy (MW)

  • 1
    This absolutely hits the mark - "having or conveying a feeling of deep seriousness and sadness."
    – SeanR
    Commented Oct 2, 2015 at 12:31

Mournful emphasizes the sorrow:

Feeling or expressing sorrow or grief; sorrowful. (TFD)

the mournful survivors of the disaster were faced with the grim task of burying the dead (MW)


How about despondent?

feeling or showing extreme discouragement, dejection, or depression (MW)

I think this word also conveys the despair one feels when realizing that so much tragedy is inflicted by fellow human beings. Many places of great loss are testaments to that terrible truth.


downhearted refers to a miserable state of mind.

  • Definition: unhappy and having no ​hope, ​especially because of a ​disappointment or ​failure; sad, Discouraged, in low spirits.
  • Example: After ​hearing the ​news of the ​defeat, she told ​supporters not to be downhearted.

A site that reminds of the loss of human life evokes a feeling of grief.

deep sadness caused especially by someone's death (MW)


I don't think you can do justice to it in one word - though I think of the various which have been suggested melancholy is the best. My reason for saying that is that the Civil War is something that took place far enough in the past that one is really not in a state of mourning.

I would say that such an experience would engender a sense of melancholy reflection. At least that is how I would describe a visit I made many years ago to the battlefield of Vimy Ridge near Arras, in north-east France where my grandfather was killed in April 1917.


I've tried to go a different route than mere synonyms of sad. It is vicariously that you might feel some of the rapture experienced by those casualties, upon which whose blood you stand. Should those feelings endure long after your encounter, you might in some way, humbly count yourself among them.

rapture - a state of being carried away by overwhelming emotion –TFD

  1. the carrying of a person to another place or sphere of existence. –dictionary.com

While my toes twiddled in the sands of Normandy, I suddenly found myself enraptured by all the atrocities of war, and although it was a beautiful day, it was only with a shiver that my thoughts turned back towards the pampered existence that is my life.

vicariously, as per the title, the melancholy was felt.

  1. felt or enjoyed through imagined participation in the experience of others –dictionary.com

Having never been in the Service myself, I can only vicariously imagine the hell that is war.

In closing, I shall describe this person, who is so deeply humbled:

casualty - a person or thing badly affected by an event or situation. –Google

Men unhit by shrapnel or bullets were nevertheless casualties.Stephen E. Ambrose

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