Friday, December 25, 2009


At high tide, when the ocean is full and sated , it rubs its belly gently up the shore and down again as it takes deep, satisfied breaths. The swells are slow and gentle, the water stretched smooth over the undulating peaks and valleys. Standing in the middle of this expanse, the sea encompasses you in its warm womb. It will slowly rise up your chest, caress your neck, and eventually lift you off your feet. If you don't struggle, and just rest in the liquid placidity, you will find yourself suspended for a few moments in the kind embrace. Then, it will gently set you back on your feet again, and recede back down your body with a slight pulling. You can ride the rise and fall, push and pull rhythm of it if you relax into it.

Mourning, I've discovered this week, is like that. At first, the swells come swiftly one after the other, and you find yourself constantly in a state of uncontrolled limbo, where your heart is crumpled, tears seep from your eyes, and you can't think of anything else but the one you lost. But as time passes, the swells come slower and more gently. You spend periods of time when the water's low, and you can see out around you. You laugh. You go through your day, fulfilling your duties with some contentment. But then, you feel the swell creeping up again. Slowly, it rises over your heart until it's encompassed your head. You realize again the magnitude of what you've lost. You float there a little, completely overcome by the grief, and then it slowly begins to recede again. Ebb and flow. Push and pull. Rise and fall. Relax in it, allow it to run its course. Don't fight the rhythm.

Why don't we talk about grief? Why have I never heard about this process? What is it in our culture that causes us to put on sad, smilingly stoic faces and say, "I'm fine. They're in a better place." They might be in a better place, but does that mean we can't mourn the 'might have been'? What's so wrong about expressing the grief that overwhelms our hearts? Do we even know how to express it?

On the island, when somebody dies, the whole village knows it. Siblings, in laws, kin from every branch of the family tree gather together in the little grass hut to mourn over the body. For three days, their wailing permeates the village. Nobody else in the entire settlement is allowed to talk above a low murmur, out of respect for the mourners. You can literally hear the waves of sorrow washing over the hut. Cries of "Alohai-e, kaukama-e" will rise to crescendo and then fall again for three days and nights, until the spirit of the dead departs from its body.

My first experience with this was during our first year in Luaniua. I heard the wild cries, and asked a friend what they were about. My friend took me by the hand, and brought me to the house of the mourners to see for myself.

The hut, small and squat like all the huts that huddle together to form the village, was distinguished by the large crowd of people spilling out of it. Everyone was turned inwards, towards the heart of the hut. Most of the people on the outside were quiet and somber, but I could hear from the inside the rise and fall of shrieks of sadness.

My friend led me to where two mats in the wall had come apart a little, forming an opening to see into the inside. I peeked in through this portal, into the dark sadness that permeated it. It was wall-to-wall people in the one, simple room. A dark form was laid on a mat in the center, and women were bent all around the body, prostrating themselves over and over again above it.

"Oh, flesh of my flesh! Alohai! My deepest heart mourns you! Oooo we will not hear your name spoken again! Never again will we hear someone calling as you pass by! Oooooo heart of my heart! Alohai! Alohai-e! My very deepest heart mourns!"

The combined cries of all the people packed into the crowded structure created a tidal wave of emotion that erupted from the little shelter and radiated out over me, my friend, and the entire village beyond. It hit me like a blunt pole in the center of my chest, and I staggered away from my peep hole.

For three days we were reminded that the family mourned. Their cries echoed over the coconut trees, floated on the smoke laden breeze, and crescendoed as the sun went down. As the days passed, however, the intervals of despairing tears were separated by longer and longer periods of quiet. By the time the third day had passed and the body was buried in a grave beyond the boundaries of the village, a quiet tiredness had replaced the high waves of hysteria. From then on, mourning took place in silence of the lonely cemetery.

Village girls, on their way down the path towards the graves.

I experienced this many other times during the course of my time on Luaniua. Once, it was my father's best friend. Once, it was my best friend's father. Death was a part of life in this community where the difference between this life and the next could be the matter of one 'simple' infection. Perhaps it was the thinness of the veil that prompted the people of that culture to mourn so fiercely. Or perhaps I am romanticizing it. There was a definite hopelessness and despair after death. They did not have the 'hope of glory' like we do. And yet I cannot help but wish we are a little more like them, in their freedom to express their grief.

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