I have encountered three losses in my life. The very first funeral we had was my grandfather’s. We knew that day was coming because my grandfather had been struggling with Parkinson's disease for decades. At that time I was only seven years old and I remember that the seven-day-service was very joyful. Our large family came together, the little girls were dressed in the same custom-made black dresses, and there was more laughter than tears. The second loss I experienced was a completely different story. I was thirteen years old and our family, my parents, my twin sister, and my younger brother, were driving to the south of Thailand to celebrate Thai New Year. Due to the heavy rain, the road was wet and the car slid and crashed. The accident took away my sister’s and brother’s lives, leaving me the single child to my parents. According to Thai statistics, thousands of traffic accidents and deaths occur during that time of year, but we never thought that it could happen to our family. I was hospitalized for a year and our family has never been the same again. The third loss was somehow similar to the first, except that I was older and witnessed the whole decaying process. My nanny (my second mother) who had raised me and my siblings since we were five, had been struggling with breast cancer for more than a decade. At one point, she had her breasts removed and came back to take care of me and our household. But the cancer went to her intestine and she determined that she didn’t want to fight and wanted to rest in peace. She passed away five years ago.
Although I experienced many types of loss, I was never good at dealing with the situation. Initially, I have always said that the cultural context in Thailand does not allow us to speak openly about death. After discussions with experts, I realized that through the eyes of the western world, Eastern cultures are known for their rich rituals that celebrate death and afterlife. I took a step back and questioned myself if it really is our custom, or if it is just my parents who created this custom of ‘not talking’ about death. I remember my grandfather making jokes about his own death and funeral. My mom made this terrified face; she was very offended by these jokes. Generally, she does not like to talk about death. Growing up in an environment where wearing all black on a daily basis is unacceptable, I had always overlooked the fact that I was actually living in a culture that celebrated death. My parents are late boomer generation who were educated in the United States and could care less about rituals and ceremonies. We never had conversations about death when my grandfather died eighteen years ago, and they certainly never talked about it when they suddenly lost their own children. They never thought that they would have to deal with death or loss that soon, so they were unprepared and became very fragile when the subject came up. Vulnerability was never among us and we became quite rational and insensitive in general. I doubt if we were the stereotypical Thai style family who incorporates Buddhist rituals in their everyday lives. We dealt with the loss differently.
One very important thing I learned through my explorations of grief is that it is a social thing. When a group of people or a family grieve over a deceased family member or friend, they often develop their own mourning customs within that group. Many families are very open about their loss and reach out for help from support groups, therapists, or friends. They develop the custom of being vulnerable or of even celebrating the absence of their loved ones. For example, some families that come to Good Grief will talk about the deceased on a daily basis. However, other families prefer to deal with their grief privately for many different reasons. Mark C. Taylor in his book, Grave Matters, revealed stories of his long lost sibling when he was eleven years old. “They had known that this day would come but obviously were not prepared for it. Though they were both teachers, they never found a lesson they could pass on to others on the death of their children” The author was told that his sister died at birth and his brother was very sick and never able to come home. “For the next six years, nothing was said about my dead brother or sister, absolutely nothing.” The author wrote about himself and his living brother, “Though we did not speak, there were several moments over the years, I believe, when we both knew we were not talking about it. The troubled silence was not broken until our parents had died.”
This means that his family developed the custom of not talking about death. The rule set by his parents was broken when they passed away. Similarly, my family’s way of dealing with the loss of my siblings is silence. I remember that when we first lost both of them, my father would sometimes start talking about them as a way to remember them; which would make both me and my mother cry. Every time their names were mentioned, there would be a slight silence, which we assumed was because of the emotions triggered by saying their names. Thus we slowly developed the custom of avoiding talking about them at all. At the beginning it was very obvious and awkward because we had so many memories together, but then it became easier and easier. As the years passed, the memories got older and further away until it was almost unnecessary to talk about them anymore. I can barely remember the last time I said my sister’s name out loud to my mother; probably four years or perhaps even as long as ten years ago. In addition, we were distracted by our obligations and duties, and temporarily forgot that we had lost two significant people in our family. For our family, our custom of not speaking about it continues. This makes me very sad because we have started to forget them and what it felt like to have them, to then lose them, and to still long for them.