A Grief Online
“I FOUND, when I was a child, that if I could put the hurt into words, it would go,” Jean Rhys wrote. And so in the days following my mother’s death I can do nothing but write, mostly about the things that nobody ever talks about when they talk about grief.
Nobody tells you that the words “death” and “passing away” are quite easy to say, but that it is difficult and uncomfortable to demonstrate grief to even the closest friends during the wake. Nobody tells you that the most common thing you will be told is “Be strong,” and that you will have no idea how to do this. We have some idea of what strength is, but to mention “strength” implies the opposite, and what does that mean? It hints at possibilities of giving up, as though there is any alternative to the living out of day after day—all the appointed days, as Elizabeth Gaskell writes in her novel “Wives and Daughters.”
Nobody tells you that the Body will be difficult to look at, not because of squeamishness, but because at times the Body will bear only a passing resemblance to the Beloved. Not even the best embalmers can mask the difference in skin color, or hide the fact that hands, once soft and pink, agile and expressive, are now gray and immobile.
Nobody tells you that one of the most difficult tasks would be the choosing of the burial clothes. Nobody also mentions that funereal customs surrounding the Body range from the tender to the ridiculous, and because it is our first wake, my family makes its acquaintance with these customs all at once: Pregnant women are not allowed near the Body; we are not allowed to offer our guests food, to thank them for coming, or to accompany them to the door; we are not allowed to refuse kind donations even from those we think would need the money more than we do. We are not allowed to sweep the floor of the wake venue, despite the accumulated debris of peanuts and food wrappers. We are not allowed to fall asleep while keeping watch over the Body. This last custom my family has shrugged off: We sleep on the floor near the Body as we did in life, during vacations and at home—closely, sweetly, all together and complete, if only by body count.
Nobody tells you that at some point the Body will acquire an idol-like quality. As the day of the burial draws near it becomes clearer and clearer that the Body is the last link with the Beloved and so we murmur to it, put our fingers on the glass as though to touch it. The Body is treated with the same loving kindness reserved for the ill and the fragile. On the day of the burial the coffin is carried with care, and accompanied at all times. However there exists the most heartbreaking of restrictions: that once the Body is in the ground, we are not allowed to visit until 40 days postmortem, a tradition hotly contested among our social circles. There appears to be nothing in Catholic doctrine to advocate such a restriction, but the consensus appears to be that there will be no harm in delaying a visit to the Beloved, and so we do not visit. My heart breaks anew every time we drive past the burial site without going in.
Nobody tells you that social media can play such a huge role during modern-day death. I had thought that I would be more dignified in my use of the internet during the worst days of our lives. I was wrong. It might be a tragedy of my generation that it is easier for many of us to talk to a phone screen than to the well-wishers during a wake. Facebook is a witness to everything: to the solicitation of prayers during illness leading up to the death, to an announcement of the death itself—a modern-day obituary—to long reminiscences and previously unseen photos and eulogies; to condolences, to song tributes, to planned reunions, to selfies taken with the coffin. To relatives living outside the country, social media is like a lifeline; for those of us better able to deal with grief through Facebook than in person, it is the only release of grief. I feel constantly like apologizing to my Facebook feed for the steady outpouring of sadness and memory. “CS Lewis wrote an entire book (‘A Grief Observed’) about his wife,” I reason. “Let me write about my mom for a few weeks”—to which artist Isobel Francisco replies, “You don’t have to apologize for your grief (or your love).”
Death has moved into the 21st century. Scrolling through my Facebook feed in the days after the burial I am surprised to note the sheer number of people who have taken a photo with the body. Perhaps we stand on the brink of a new era where new burial customs and etiquette are left to be created through time and superstition. One can only imagine the evolution of folk practices and Judeo-Christian traditions in the internet age. Maybe our children’s children will be told by their elders that tweets are not allowed until after the ikasiyam, or that tagging the Beloved dead on social media posts is not allowed until after the 40th day. I wonder: Will there ever be a dignified way to grieve through the internet, except to avoid it entirely? We might never live to find out. In this day and age, what traditions do we rational Filipinos keep and adopt, and what do we abandon?
There’s one tradition, however, that as a family we have chosen to leave behind. If our relatives and friends can take photos of our mother’s body and post them on social media—a thing previously unheard of, a thing too new for us to be able to judge if it is proper—surely we can take a bunch of carnations and bring them to her fresh grave, so we can see her under the summer sky, three days after her burial. Surely in this, too, no apologies are owed for grief—or for love.
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