Grief . . . It’s a funny thing. No, not funny – ha-ha; it’s an odd thing that it is so very common – we all do it sooner or later – but we do it in such extremely different ways. Now, you may be thinking, “Oh no, here we go again.” And, you’re right. Here I go again, but with a twist. Some things we simply have to laugh about, because if we don’t, we get all depressed, bitter and twisted. So, today I’m going to laugh.
Like most Westerners, my concept of grief included things such as plenty of nice deep depression, an acute sense of loss, gobs and gobs of denial, much sniffling and dabbing of eyes and the occasional crying jag. More pronounced but harmful symptoms such as suicidal thoughts and intense anger are common but are usually unseen by those surrounding the griever. That was my idea of grief until I witnessed the aftermath of a death in a Papua New Guinean village.
Wow, you’ve probably never witnessed such scenes – well, maybe in movies. Believe me, movies can’t convey that kind of emotional chaos. You have to see it first-hand. You have to hear it, the wailing which goes on interminably, the drums beating all night. You have to smell it, the stench of animal fat and plant juices smeared on sweaty bodies. I felt embarrassed. The staggering around, the rolling in the dirt, the screaming and shouting, the moans and tears, the trembling, the falling into camp-fires. I kept wanting to shout, “Hey, hold on there. You’re going to hurt yourself!” It was horrible. I didn’t get the point of it. That’s it all right. It seemed pointless to me. And it went on for a couple of days with brief periods of exhaustion.
One might well ask, “What’s funny about that?” Well, nothing, I admit. Until it happens to you. It’s taken me a few days to calm down enough to look back on it to see the irony of my experience. Before Tuesday morning it all seemed a tiny bit fake to me – like a public demonstration of sadness and loss which is Politically Correct. If one doesn’t participate it is considered callous and uncaring. Proper respect must be paid.
I kept a pretty stiff upper lip through the two memorial services, grieving in the Western way, hunched, sobbing occasionally, gratefully accepting the ministrations of lady friends on each side holding a hand or draping a comforting arm around my shoulders. It was very proper and convincing. I was certainly convinced at the time. However, in the end it was strangely uncompelling, unfulfilling, unmoving and a whole lot of other un-somethings which I can’t seem to get from my brain to the keyboard. I will not take a thing from those experiences. I won’t spoil them by lessening their importance. Those ceremonies were not for me. They were for Eunie. However they did not come anywhere near satisfying my need to grieve for her. There’s another un – unsatisfied.
Many people warned me. “It hasn’t hit you yet.” Now I get it. I learned all about it in one morning. I don’t know how to rank it alongside other powerful experiences in my life. It was absolutely unique. It wasn’t much fun, but I am so glad that it happened.
Because I’m feeling calmer now and I want to run with that, here is a nice peaceful reef scene with my favourite starfish, the highly improbable Linckia laevigata:
The morning did not start well. I called in sick. At some point I sat down at the computer to compose the words for Eunie’s tombstone. Yes, I know that’s been a long time coming, but it’s a logistical problem. You cannot get anything like that made in PNG, at least not what I wanted. I had a mild sense of foreboding, but I told myself sternly (doing that a lot these days), “Hey, you’re a writer. So sit down and write something. It’s not War and Peace.”
So, I sat down to write. Here’s another L. laevigata:
Nothing that I wanted so much came to mind. I desperately needed to get the job done. Nothing but frustration . . . What a fine time for writer’s block. Suddenly something wild pounced upon me like a wolf ravaging a carcass. It blew me away. I was Pooh Bear on The Blustery Day.
Okay, what I’m going to describe is not pretty. Keep in mind that I’m in a very calm and bemused state of mind right now and I’m standing outside myself looking in. It was a good thing. It was needed. Still, you may not want to read about it. That’s okay. I’m putting these words here because I need to. If nobody reads them . . . well, that’s okay too.
It went on and on. I couldn’t stop it. Crying isn’t the word for it. It was more like wailing – yeah, wailing and moaning and . . . screaming. I can’t ever remember screaming before in my whole crazy life. How can that happen? How can you get through life without screaming once in a while? Now I get that too. I get screaming. Oh, yeah, baby. I get screaming. We all need to do it more often. It’s very refreshing.
And then there was the staggering around and bumping into things. And yes, the falling down. And the pounding of the fists against anything handy, like a head or the floor or the wall or whatever. And the head banging, now I finally dig that one too – the head banging. I couldn’t stop. I started getting scared.
And then something really silly happened. I started yawning. I have seldom yawned in the last few months. What’s with that? So, between racking sobs I experienced a seemingly endless series of yawns that went way down to my soul, long earnest yawns which sent chills of wacky pleasure flowing from my scalp to my toes. You know the kind of yawns I’m talking about. Where did those come from? They seemed so incongruous, so unseemly, so . . . so stupid!
I managed to get my voice back enough to call the office to say that I wasn’t coming in. I think that I scared my friend on the phone. He offered to come over. Let me catch my breath a moment. Here’s yet another calm blue starfish. Really this blue toy looks as if it’s just plain tired:
If I show enough of these I will put you to sleep. Don’t spill your coffee.
I declined the offer of help because I knew exactly the kind of help I needed. I needed some tough love. some very tough love. I called Trevor. I’m not going to tell you everything that happened while I sat in the living room waiting for Trev to arrive. Some of it is too revealing. Some of it is embarrassing. I will admit that I did two things which are supposed to be a part of the grieving process, but I had decided to skip, because they seemed so pointless. I asked “Why? Oh, WHY?” and I got extremely angry with God. And yeah, in retrospect, both were pointless. Imagine that – getting all angry at God. It is to laugh. And asking why? WHY?? What a silly question. Everybody dies. It’s part of the deal. What makes me so special that my wife shouldn’t die? It’s ridiculous. It doesn’t require an explanation. Because. Just because. That’s why.
The anger seems very comical. I’m too steeped in Christianity to curse God properly. The words wouldn’t come. The sentences were too awful to complete. I’m now picturing Homer Simpson with his hand’s around Bart’s neck and Bart’s tongue is sticking out and wiggling frantically and Homer is screaming, “Why, you . . . (sputter, sputter)”. You get the picture. That’s me – angry with God. A dear friend told me that she was very angry with God for a very long time after her husband died. I didn’t get it. Now I do. I got over my anger pretty quickly. I ran out of energy. All of that grinding of the teeth and clenching of the fists wears a fellow down. It takes a lot of effort to stay angry with God.
You don’t need any more details. That is not what this is about. This is about relief.
Here is another of my favourite starfish, a Choriaster granulatus:
I don’t know how they get into these positions. They must practice Yoga. More about that later. You’re going to have a good laugh. (Hee-hee)
Well, by the time Trev arrived I was in a sorry state. I wish he had taken a picture. I’d love to have it. My head was lumpy and my hands hurt. We sat there for a while and he calmed me down. It was some of the finest tough love I have ever received. I was still breaking out in fresh fits for a while. I distinctly remember hitting myself in the face very hard. Funny, I did not realise that it was possible for one to hit oneself in the face so hard. My jaw is still sore. Now I am getting a giggle from that as I think of it. It was like the classic movie scene in which some poor soul is plainly hysterical and gets a good hard slap from a friend who says, “Get control of yourself!” and the slapped person replies, “Thanks, I needed that.”
Well, this story is growing too long, so I’d better wrap it up. I scared the neighbours something awful. When I came back to the house in the evening, after going for some Yoga (yes, I said Yoga), Sisilia and her niece were waiting for me with some food and serious looks on their faces. They are lovely people, my next door neighbours. I invited them into the house and we sat for a while. Though they were shaken and worried about me their attitude changed dramatically when I told them what it was all about. They were very approving and happy for me. It’s the Papua New Guinian way. I was now acting like good person and properly showing my grief for my dead wife. See? A happy ending.
Now for the real fun.
I have detected a tiny hint of jocular scepticism among certain friends whenever the word Yoga escapes my lips in connection with myself. I’m here to dispel that scoffing attitude. I went for some Yoga to help calm me down. I asked Michaela to take a couple of pictures of me in the less frightening positions.
I have never ascribed to the spiritual accoutrements of Yoga. I don’t get it. However, I have practiced the physical exercises and contortions since I was a child. I’m Pretzel Man. I don’t want to shock you with the more bizarre configurations of my body. You may be having your breakfast doughnut. I just want to demonstrate that I actually do Yoga. I don’t pretend to do Yoga:
Yes, that is me. You might now be saying, “Yeah, well, anybody can do that.”
Yeah, well, can you do this?
This is also me – doing a head stand or, as I prefer to call it, a Tiger Stand.
If you don’t find that funny then you need an attitude check.
UPDATE: I got this Facebook comment from Justin Friend. It’s so appropriate to this post that I’m including it here.
Reading your blog post today reminded me of several PNG Haus Krais and similar I have been to. One of my first experiences with such things was when I first arrived in the highlands and was in Kerowagi. We had been in the garden for several hours digging up Kaukau and getting other foods for a feast the next day. We were all taking a break and sitting in the shade beside a typical single file village track winding through the gardens. There was maybe 8 of us sitting there telling stories. As we sat it was common every few minutes for someone to pass by on the track only metres away, apart from a general greeting the passing people were essentially politely ignored.
And then all hell broke loose amongst the people I was with, seemingly without a cue or a reason. The women started wailing and almost convulsing, going from sitting on the ground to rolling on the ground flailing their arms, tears flowing immediately. The men were not much better. The noise was intense, the emotion was intense.
I sat dumbfounded. One minute, no 1 second ago we were all laughing and joking, and now all of a sudden the entire party was crying, screaming, rolling around the ground.
And then it stopped. Almost as sudden as it started it stopped. There was the briefest point of composure and then things went straight back the way it was, telling stories, laughing, joking, sitting in the shade after the gardening work.
What the hell had happened. I looked to my soon to be wife for an explanation.
“Did you see those two people who just passed on the track?” she asked. Well no, I didn’t because as soon as the first Aunty started screaming I was focussed on our group.
It turned out that just a day or so before I arrived there a man had died. The “official” mourning period was still in place. The people who had walked past our merry group laughing in the shade were owed the appropriate sign of grief and mourning so they got it.
IT was certainly genuine. The tears were real. The grief was real. But it was so controlled. They turned it on and off like it was the tap supplying fresh water.
It was very powerful and I see and hear it still in my mind as if it was yesterday I experienced that.
Not exactly where you were coming from in your blog, but still an interesting handle on grief
Hang in there ol’ fella.