Grief in a strange land

Commemorating 9/11 makes me think of grief and grieving, and how we do that in community and as individuals.  One of my favorite authors, Ann Lamott, says this:  "All those years I fell for the great palace lie that grief should be gotten over as quickly as possible and as privately.  But what I've discovered since is that the lifelong fear of grief keeps us in a barren, isolated place and that only grieving can heal grief; the passage of time will less the acuteness, but time alone, without the direct experience of grief, will not heal it."  (Ann Lamott, Traveling Mercies, 1999) Most of us have heard about various stages of grief that experts have identified.  Maybe some people go through grief in a very organized way, but I don't think I'm one of those.  Lamott says grief is a lazy Susan, and you never really know what you're going to get at any given time.  That makes sense to me.  This past year we lost a darling young friend to a brain tumor and some times the anger is so big I can't speak.  Or the sadness overwhelms me and I cry for hours.  When the roses I planted on her diagnosis day bloom, I feel like God is reminding me that He and his love are making miracles I can't imagine.

We lived in the Solomon Islands for a lot of years, and people there grieve very differently from anything I'd experienced before.  These people live in close community.  Their houses are close together and the walls are made of woven mats.  Privacy is an unknown quantity.  This is bad when you don't want other people to know your business, because everybody knows your business, and there is no television, so talking about your business is the original reality TV.  But close community is good when you're in trouble and grieving, because you will never be left alone.

I wrote a couple of journal entries about loss and grief there a few years ago.  What stands out to me now is the universality of loss and grief, how, regardless of culture, we ask the same questions, and that the care of others carries us through.

August 24, 2002

Miriam died tonight.  She was in her 40’s and had eight children, the youngest just three or four years old.  They say she had uterine cancer.  For a year she knew that something was wrong.  Finally she went to the hospital in Honiara and they just sent her back home again.

Her sisters sat with her all day today.  She kept crying out in pain, asking to be shifted to one side, or to be lifted up higher on the pillows.  Her husband went up to the garden; he couldn’t stand to listen to her crying.

Late in the afternoon, she said, “I want to go, I want to go, but I’m waiting for Peter to come back from the garden.”  When Peter came down the mountain late in the day, she died.  One of the little girls who was in the room at the time said that she just let out a big breath, and didn’t breathe again.

Then everyone in the house began wailing, and the news started to spread like ripples on a pond.  Someone ran to stop the boys’ soccer game, and to tell the girls to leave their game of In Water.  Someone else went to beat the drum, just a few loud strokes.

As the news spreads outward, a cloud of silence forms over the village.  An unquiet silence, a conscious, swirling force, with a screaming eye of grief at its center.  It draws the entire village in.  Whole families come, walking silently up the path, past our house, toward the wailing.

We can hear the wailing from our house, mostly low and droning but with a few high, frantic cries from the closest relatives.  “Mother, mother, don’t go from me.”  “Eee, mother, mother, eee, mother.”

Outside the house, people are standing or sitting quietly, mostly looking at the ground.  Babies are silent, wide-eyed.  Children creep around, not speaking, dodging into the house, looking at the body, watching the mourners, learning how to grieve.  One young man is lying outside on a bench, moaning, with other young men gathered around him, all crying quietly as they fan their friend.

We leave our shoes at the foot of the stairs and go inside the house.  The air is hot, humid--thick with stale sweat and fresh tears.  Here, people are weeping openly.  Miriam still lies in the small bedroom where she died.  The women are gathered around her, and here is the center of the wailing.  I can’t even see the body, there are so many relatives weeping over her.

Andy stops to talk to Peter, to hold his hand, and to give him the gift of tinned meat and money that we’ve brought to help with the cost of the funeral week.  I squeeze into the back of the room full of women, feeling awkward and useless.  Fortunately, no one pays any attention to me.  I can just stand there crying in my own inadequate Western way.

Miriam’s daughter, Ara, is screaming and crying, lying over her mother’s body.  Other relatives are holding her, while they wail with her.  What she says doesn’t make any sense to me.  For some reason, she is screaming about cabbage.  Later on, we ask someone else about this.  Why was she screaming about cabbage?  “I don’t know either,” our friend answered.  “Maybe she meant that one thing she would miss was her mother’s cooking.”

The women want to move the body out of this small room and into the main living area of the house so that the real mourning can begin.  But when they start to move the body, Miriam's oldest daughter, Ara, screams even louder and faints.  Three women carry her outside and bathe her with cool water.  “Ara, Ara, think of your baby,” they tell her.  “Come back and carry your baby.”

Eventually we leave the house, and one of our friends walks with us back to our house.  “I blame Peter,” he says.  I think that he’s talking about the long delay between her first symptoms and when she went to Honiara to the hospital.  So I tell him that uterine cancer is just that way.  Even with the best treatment, people die from this.  Sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.

“Why?  What causes it?”  our friend asks again.  Then I realize that he is looking for the true source of the illness.  Not the immediate medical cause.  If somebody dies here, there has to be a reason.  Broken relationships are always the culprit.  People don’t get sick for no reason.  Ill will, anger, even curses and sorcery—these are the real causes of illness and death.  Peter is known to have been a faithless husband, not much of a support to Miriam.  So our friend blames Peter.

August 25


I wake up in the middle of the night with the full moon blazing through my window like an interrogation light.  Even the curtains, when I draw them, barely dim the moon.  I can’t sleep.

Outside there is a strange bird calling, calling, calling.  The note is high and rising, an unanswerable question:  “Why?  Why?  Why?”  The question sways low, rises.  Each “why” ascends a notch up the scale.  As the “why” goes higher, it becomes abrupt, demanding, “Why-why-why-why-why-why?”

Far away, another bird calls out.  Its cry is falling, soothing, reassuring, comforting.  But the why-bird keeps wailing.  It moves to another tree, farther away, but I can still hear it asking “Why?  Why?  Why?”

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