Thursday, April 10, 2008

Observations at a Funeral

Yogamum's observations at her dad's funeral reminded me of a few things. One of the things she noticed, is how people often tell you not to cry at the funeral, and they try to comfort you.

I am suddenly seized by the memories of my aunt's funeral. It was during the service, and my mum suddenly broke down in tears. My mum's cousin -- The Annoying Aunt, asked her not to grieve. Not to cry. The Annoying Aunt ordered (even my parents do not order me) me to "Take care of your mum."

I answered her, as respectfully as I could, "Let her cry."

The Annoying Aunt probably thought there was something wrong with me. She looked at way in a manner that was harrassed and hinted at disapproval. I eyed her squarely, suddenly angry at the ignorance of "good intentions."

It was the funeral of my aunt -- my mother's younger sister. She loved my aunt, and watched her combat cancer twice -- painfully. My aunt lost the battle the second time round, when the disease came back stronger, the cancerous cells spreading to her lungs and other organs. My mother took care of her sister through the worse of it all. The Annoying Aunt did not.

My mother loved her sister and now she is dead. My mother grieved because of the loss. "Let her cry," I said. She has a right to her grief. It is one of the honest and human expression of love. Why are people forcing my mother to stop crying?

That day at my aunt's funeral service, I became indignant at how many people kept asking me to "take care" of my mother. "There is nothing wrong with my mother!" I wanted to scream. Not her grief. Rather, there is something cowardly about the rest of them, for being uncomfortable with grief. Instead, they tell my mother to cease and desist this embarrassing sign of weakness; they want their lives (and their funeral service) sanitized without the messy emotions.

The grief is messy -- because it is public. The truth is, we are uneasy with grief, and death. The Annoying Aunt needs to have her uncomfortable emotions off-stage. Since she can't deal with her own anxieties, it is easy to remove my mother. Which they did, much later, when she wouldn't stop crying. They removed my mother from the service.

My mother was one of the few people who stood by my late aunt's bed everyday when she was dying.

And they removed my mother from the funeral service, until she could "collect herself." Or is it until my mother could behave in a manner they preferred?

Another observation by Yogamum, is how some people have the gift of a gentle presence and the ability to say just the right things.

I was reminded of this simple act of kindness from Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking:

I will not forget the instinctive wisdom of the friend who, every day for those first few weeks, brought me a quart container of scallion-and-giner congee from Chinatown. Congee I could eat. Congee was all I could eat.

There is an important lesson in this, I think, almost like a Zen koan.


Yogamum said...

Yes, it is so true how people project onto others *their* needs and try to control in them what they cannot control in themselves. I have an Annoying Aunt, too, and she partly inspired that post of mine.

A friend gave my mom that Joan Didion book. It is such a beautiful exploration of grief.

darkorpheus said...

Yogamum Oh dear. I hope you had more patience for your Annoying Aunt than I did. I think I behaved badly with The Annoying Aunt that day.

I read a library copy of The Year of Magical Thinking. Because of it, I am full of admiration for Joan Didion. The friend who gifted your mother the book is cool.

I find myself coming back to that book from time to time. I wish I had bought a copy instead. It explores so honestly our attitudes to grief and mortality.

Ana S. said...

I can relate to this post a lot. Whenever I hear people saying "don't cry" at funerals, or even worse, say "you have to be strong" to those in mourning, I want to scream. Why do they have to be strong? Why can't they grieve? And since when is grieving a sign of being weak anyway?

"The grief is messy -- because it is public. The truth is, we are uneasy with grief, and death."

So very true.

darkorpheus said...

Nymeth Exactly. We have become uneasy with genuine feeling. Maybe it's okay to shed a few tears at a funeral, but not the heart-wrenching sobs, it's not dignified.

What happened to us as people? When did we become so awkward with feelings?