Slow the car down, open the door and push my body into the ditch. That is not from one of my books, rather a tasteless joke I have made in the past about how to deal with my mortal remains after I have departed this world.
The idea behind my suggestion is that I won’t actually care as I will be dead. Those that love me were unimpressed with the suggestion. In truth I am not sure how much I was joking and how much of what I said came from a place of honesty. Everyone handles grief in such different ways. I’m not too good with it if the truth be told and I reckon I hold on to it for far too long, much to my detriment.
To a large extent, how people grieve is touched by their faith or lack thereof and what they believe to be in store for their loved ones, or indeed themselves when they ultimately pass on. In Ireland there is a great tradition when it comes to mourning our dead. Death is mourned but also celebrated, in that we very much celebrate the lives of those that we have lost and there is a wonderful coming together, a solidarity and sense of community, that gathers a special momentum when someone dies.
This week tragically, six young Irish students died in a terrible accident in Berkley California and the reaction of the country as a whole, reflects very much the way death is handled on a local level. We all turn out for the funeral; we all offer our sympathy as if the country was a small village mourning one of our own. Of course each and every one of those young students belonged to us, a nation used to seeing our loved ones travel abroad to study in the summer, or more heartbreakingly emigrating to further fields with the fear we will lose them forever.
I doubt there is an Irish person who does not have a family member or close friend, living in some far flung field less green in colour but greener in its opportunity. My family lost my brother to Chicago a long time ago and with him, we lost the next generation who became part of the culture and country that welcomed them and nurtured them. Sadly we also lost him forever when he died all too young and that double mourning is a hard one to handle.
At least in the familiar world of home, we can visit a grave or a place where memories can be touched and accessed, by recreating a time in a place that was shared. The unspoken fear of many parents who lose their children to the diaspora, is that such a tragedy will befall them.
But no one tragedy is worse than the next. There is no competition in grief. Everyone loses. When I was fifteen years old I wrote a poem that opened with the line,
I’ve lost my Church but not my faith,
People stare and wonder what’s gone wrong with me.
They seem to think it’s God I hate,
But I’ve lost my Church – not my faith.
It is interesting looking back to a world of staunch Catholicism in Ireland where I was naively demanding that I could believe differently. I didn’t know what I believed in, but I knew it wasn’t represented by the church that I saw back then. The loss of that comfort blanket of a Church that I had fallen out with, didn’t hit me until I experienced true deep loss on a personal level for the first time. Everything centred on the Church traditions and despite my reservations; it was I thought, a great comfort to me. The night before the funeral we gathered for prayers and friends and family come to offer their condolences in the formal setting of the church with my father present in his coffin. While I had lost relatives before, his death was the first that I was to experience in my immediate family.
The first time I experienced this from the receiving end I remember being struck by one person in particular. He was a neighbour that I barely knew, but he took my hand and held it and when I looked into his eyes he held my gaze. I saw the sadness of understanding there and recalled that he had not long since lost his mother. In that moment I felt the truth of community in that church that had long since lost me.
The day of the funeral is a devastating affair. To say goodbye is one thing, but to say goodbye forever… my heart broke I know because I felt it break. I have sadly had this experience more than once in my life and I dread to imagine how I will cope the next time because heart break is unpredictable and always unique.
The solidarity of an Irish funeral, the sense of community, the love, the memories and wonderfully, thankfully, the laughter as we wake those we loved and remember fondly is something to behold. We each do it differently, from country to country, tradition to tradition, but I think the thing that matters most, is not to concern ourselves with the afterlife. What may or may not be there can either be a comfort or despairing.
Whether we are fortunate enough to have a faith to hold close as a comfort, or whether we choose to hold onto something else to keep away the overwhelming burden that grief can become is not important. The important thing for me anyway, has been what happens afterwards. When the ceremonies have passed and the spotlight dims, those who may have spoken openly loud and often during the period of mourning, will generally all lower their voices and the silence is deafening.
That our loved ones should have disappeared is shocking, that they also fall silent; that others shy away from mentioning them in your presence is indescribable. The world moves on and the key is not to let it leave you behind. I have taken my loved ones with me on my journey. The ones I have lost are generally quiet and their memories are neatly folded in the drawers of my mind. Some are left open so I can dip in and have a rummage about whenever I feel the need for comfort. Some are very special and private. These are carefully folded beneath sheets of tissue paper, safely locked away in the bottom drawer, to be carefully taken out and cherished in the times I need them most.
So what of me and my demise and will I really be happy to be discarded as I said in my opening lines. I guess not. I don’t ever concern myself with leaving my mark. When my time comes, I suspect there will be a wake. No doubt there will be some stories told and reminiscences reminisced. Hopefully, smiles will be smiled because after the din dies down and the laughter fades, when all go home to leave the ones who loved me most alone with my memory, I want the sadness to be tinged with something that remains outside of their control. I hope to leave a parting gift. When the fuss is gone and as I imagine they look at my face in a picture, the thing I want to find its way through the dark moments, the thing that will hopefully form despite the tears, is a memory, perhaps simple, perhaps precious, but hopefully one that means a smile will curl on their lips to soothe their sadness. I only hope I do enough today, to pay that gift forward when the time comes.
Max Power’s books include, Darkly Wood, Larry Flynn Bad Blood and Little Big Boy
You can find more details about Max Power’s books here : – http://www.amazon.com/author/maxpower
3 thoughts on “Stop the clocks, slow the car down, leave a parting gift…”
Beautiful post Patrick!
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I never, ever get a panic attack, but I was close to one as in Dublin last week when I could not find my father’s grave. Even though I was two years old when he died, and even though I had never been to the cemetery before, now I was visiting the country, it was just so important for me to find the right place to put my flowers. I did find it, and then wept buckets, it is the first and probably last time I will ever be able to pay my respects as being so young, I can’t remember him when he was alive.
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Despite the fact my grandfather was English (we came over on the boat in 1620 but that made no difference to my grandmother’s family – as far as they were concerned once an Englishman, always an Englishman) my grandmother waked him properly and though many of his friends were not Irish (as she was) they wound up celebrating his life with gusto… I was young at the time but, truthfully, seeing people laughing and singing at his wake all but removed the fear of death from me… that’s served me well over the years. Thanks for this post Patrick…
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