Diaspora Dilemmas5 March 2019
The evening we found out that my grand-uncle had been brutally taken from us, my childhood home no longer felt like home. The air hung heavy and the humidity that served as a reminder of the inevitability of summer, clung to my skin, making it hard to breathe.
The loss of a loved one is a pain that always seems to hit an exposed wire deep inside your soul. No matter what spiritual or religious principles of impermanence guide you, nothing can quite prepare you.
I’m lucky, or unlucky depending on how you look at it, that I haven’t had to experience many instances of loss during my life. This, amongst a deep-rooted love for Disney films, has resulted in me having a slightly naive worldview, and the inherent belief that everything will always be as it has been. Although, when I realise the reality of morality, I am weighed with a feeling that time on some unseen clock is soon running out.
My family spans the globe like someone picked us all up, held us above the earth and shook us out at random. Scatterings of cousins, once, twice, thrice removed seem to exist everywhere, and like most immigrants can tell you, family group chats tend to involve people that you didn’t even know about.
Most immigrants share my experience of living in a country that is different from that of the majority of their extended family. Instead of being connected by a vast expanse of highways or train networks, we rely instead on delicate strings hung carefully between satellites. The result? Sending and receiving WhatsApp chain messages, and/or a plethora of ill-timed phone calls due to the enemy of different time zones.
When you throw loss into the spiderweb, oftentimes we silently reel, miles away from ‘ground zero’, and have to be creators of our own closure. We find our own ways to say goodbye. In our case, we gathered silently around our altar, thousands of kilometres away, whilst the rest of our family were gathering at the temple for the funeral processions.
And due to the blessing (or curse) of being geographically distant, we begin to move on, in our own ways. Geography spares us the agony of being present and experiencing the aftermath of any passing, especially when it is sudden. In the case of my grand-uncle, on reflection, it often feels like someone picked up the book of his life and tore out the rest of the chapters so roughly that even the spine collapsed.
Routine falls back into place, albeit a little haphazardly, and we rely on yet more updates in family chats or calls. In all the distance it creates, the physical ache of not being able to be there and provide menial comfort to your loved ones is a hard, stiff and bitter pill to swallow, yet most immigrants will tell you that it is merely a spoonful of a medicine we have been taking our entire lives, with rarely a spoonful of sugar to chase it.
The artisan craft of creating our own closure is one that our communities know well. It’s something that gets unknowingly passed on through generations, and it’s there at almost every waking step when we are fortunate enough to reunite with family overseas. Among family dinners and reunions, everyone always saves a small amount of room for unsaid realisations of the theoretical possibility of it being ‘the last time’ that everyone around the table, is sharing a meal together.
In today’s fast-paced world where even taking a moment to catch your breath seems impossible, loss is a brutal and ugly speed bump that forces you to put things into perspective. In the midst of pain, we are forced to take a step back, stop and reconsider our priorities and the equivalent weightage we attach to things in our lives.
For whatever loss takes away, it also has a funny magnetic ability to bring people together. Drifting, potentially estranged relations tether themselves to each other in the hopes of better survival odds against the seas of grief.
It has now been 3 months since my grand-uncle passed away, and some of us have clung to bits of driftwood; work, family commitments or spirituality in order to remedy the incomprehensible nature of his departure. The few stories of my grand-uncle that have come trickling out leave us all with a warm feeling of fondness. Although our family ecosystem will never quite be the same, I take a small amount of comfort in knowing that the stories we tell will keep his memory alive.
And I’d like to think he’s looking down at us with fondness too.