Sunny Side Down

The tea is taking a bit longer to make these days. I hover over the sink, pushing the tap handle down to let the hot water slowly wrap itself around the hollow of my cup. This time, I remember to release the tap handle just before it overflows and burns my hand.

I place my cup on the kitchen table and tie the thread of my chamomile teabag around its handle. I watch my teabag slowly round its shoulders and sink to the bottom, inking the water a soft yellow, only for it to puff its chest out like an airbag and gasp its way back to the surface. The thread, now barely visible in the deepening yellow, is its only link to the outside world as its chest bobs in the hot, steaming water.

I blink away tears. I wish, like the tea, I had my own thread to hang on to in the thick and heavy waters of my grief. A grief that relentlessly plays back its favourite scene in my head; a brawling wave boring through my chest, over and over again.   

I find it hard to reach out to my colleagues. In my Australian culture, grief is largely seen as a private affair, punctuated by long and absent silences. Needing a national ‘Are you OK’ day says a lot about us, and how hard it is to have conversations outside socially acceptable boundaries. The English language has become so business-like; stripped of its poetic limbs, its ruptured umbilical cord makes it difficult for us to find the right words to support those we love when their world is turned sunny side down.

Instead, I lean into my Lebanese culture, its communal nature an extreme counterpoint that provides some respite to the heaviness I have been carrying within me these past few weeks. It has not lost its connection to the rituals that mark the important stages of life. Arabic is a poetic language that has a saying for every occasion. Death is a time for it to flex its profound wisdom and, through its prose, connect what our culture tells us to do, with what we actually do.

It doesn’t surprise me when my Lebanese community arrives within a few hours of hearing the news; parks forty cars around the house, a circular fence that wards off the impending feeling of isolation and offers momentary distractions from grief.

For a whole week before the funeral, they come loaded with food and stories. You are well loved, says the big pot of soup that has simmered over the stove for hours; the floating orange hexagons of carrots and circular greens of peas barely visible between the big chunks of chicken. They were well loved, say the tales of “that time when” that spread thick and fast, covering entire decades of friendship. From now on, we are bound to repeat stories of those who left us as much as we can, so the memories of their good deeds breathe on, long after theirs cease to exist.  

Yet even with such an expansive vocabulary and communal outpouring of grief, something remains missing.

We are very good at grieving at a communal level but not an individual one. As poetic and profound as they can be, cookie-cut words can do just that—cut—when they don’t mold themselves to fit the form of the person or situation they’re being directed to.

Talking about death as a “cup from which we will all drink from” means nothing to a person who has watched on helplessly as the water of that cup pours itself unwillingly into the mouth of their loved one, drip by painstaking drip. Saying “at least they did not suffer for long” does not acknowledge the trauma that we’re left with when we’ve spent all the time they’ve suffered looking after them, that we didn’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye when they are finally taken away from us.

Instead in these moments, and whatever our culture, we need to be the thread to their teabag. We need to be brave enough to watch them sink into the grief as long as they need to, safe in the knowledge of our connection and ever readiness to pull them up should they need our help. And though their chest may round itself inwards at first, we must trust that in time it will puff itself outwards once again, their very own airbag. And when it does, to be the ones to gently tug them back closer to the surface, allowing their head to bob in the warm waters of life once again, facing the world sunny side up.

This article was first published on 6 December 2017