I was once invited to a funeral while I lived in Thailand. I had been working, trying to sell condos in an area completely devoid of tourists (a rarity in Thailand), and found myself driving around looking for a place to eat. I had stopped on the side of the road for some gas when a man came up to me and invited me to what I thought was a party across the road. I agreed and entered the funeral. It was for a little girl I had never met, her little body lying on a bed in front of me. I can remember her family crying around me and the petals of brightly colored flowers.
Grief is such a tough thing to witness and is so rarely seen publicly. When faced with it I think most people are understandably uncomfortable. What do you say to someone who has lost a child? How do you comfort those whose world has fallen apart around them? Public displays of grief seem to strip the participants naked in front of us, showing us the pain that all of us fear to feel.
When I was in high school there was in a car accident. My friend, my brother, and two other boys were driving when they collided with another car. The two boys in the back died, the two in the front survive. My friend and one of the other boys was in the back, my brother and his friend were in the front. I can’t imagine the pain my friend’s parents felt as they heard there son was not coming home again. Each person involved dealt with grief in their own way. Many cried. I turned against my religion. My other friends wanted to talk. My brother, one of the survivors, became quiet, left with a sadness that destroyed his confidence. My mother announced that she would write a book.
The book my mother decided to write, her first book, would be a children’s book on the subject of grief. When she announced it to the family I don’t really think any of us thought she would follow through with it. My mother is a quiet, non-articulate, shy woman. She has battled mental illness for years and is often uncomfortable in many social situations. She is the woman who stands behind my father with his confidence and clear voice. I think for many of these reason I have always felt a distance from her.We are so different and i admit that she embodies many of the things i fear.
We encouraged her politely, saying it was a great idea. She interviewed members of the other families involved the best she could and then locked herself away in her sewing room to write her magnum opus. After a several months we all forgot about the book. We all adjusted to living with our grief as many often do. One day she began to talk about a writer’s conference that would be coming up that she wanted to go to. They would read her manuscript, add some constructive criticism and help her with information on the process of publishing. No one had read it but her. We sent her off with the best of wishes, though deep down I think we all felt apprehension and fear. We wanted to protect her but we didn't want to hurt her. It’s strange how we want to protect the emotions of our loved ones, while in turn not allowing them to grow emotionally. She left, off by herself for the first time since before her and my father’s wedding. She left and then one week later she returned. She never talked about what happened there. She never told any of us how it went and if she told my father about it, he never said a word.
After high school I left home. I went across Canada for a year then down the west coast, saw a bit of Mexico, spent a couple months in Hawaii until I finally found my way back. My parents gave me my old room back until I could find a place somewhere downtown. One day I walked into the kitchen and my mother was at the table thumbing through a stack of papers. I asked her what she was doing and she said it was her book and asked if I’d like to read it. I sat down, turned the page and began to read.
It began with my mother explaining what she was like as a child. She described herself as full of fear. The world was a big place and the people, places and things in it often left her with anxiety. There was a tree on the little farm in Saskatchewan, and there she would hide from the world. As I read I realized that I had known nothing of my mother’s childhood. In fact, I realized that I had never even considered that my mother had a childhood, she was simply my mother; she had always been a two dimensional character in my own story. I loved her but I never knew her. Here, on this piece of paper, my mother became a human. The story was short, clunky, slow and utterly personal. As it progressed she wrote about the accident. She described the circumstances around the death of my friend and the other boy. She talked about the grief it brought and how it made her want to hide. She held guilt over the happiness she felt of my brother’s survival and deep sorrow for the parents of those who had lost their own sons. She wrote about how the other families dealt with their grief and how, through family and community, she had found safety.I asked her if she had published it and she said no, it needed a lot of work and it probably never would be good enough. My mother’s grief was displayed before me on the table and I didn't know what to do with it… and then I realized there was nothing I could do. For my mother this book was an attempt at healing and, according to her, it has helped. It didn't matter if it was good or bad or whether I liked it or not. It didn't matter if it was published or not. We all grieve in our own way and this was the way my mother chose to do it. All I had to do was just be there and that is often the case with grief. Kind words often fail. We cannot understand what other’s go through and I believe we should not try to. When confronted with grief, all that’s usually necessary is to listen, to witness and perhaps on occasion, to read.