Watching Death

I believe that death is not limited to those who are dying or have died. It is not just a word that describes a person’s status or a moment in life that condoles unbearable grief. I believe that the living are a part of death and it is the living that shapes the outcome of death: what it brings, what it takes and what it leaves.

It is one thing to watch a loved one die; it’s another to watch someone close to you watch their loved one die. This year I have watched a family lose a loved one in the span of three months. From countless stories and first hand accounts of her kindness, her strength and her ability to make people truly believe in the importance of family, respect and honour, it is hard to think that such a person would cease to exist in this world.

Cancer is one of humanity’s cruelest enemies. It takes the lives of approximately 7.6 million people each year and unfortunately for this family, it had crept up one by one. First the bowel, then the kidney until the most fatal of her fight took place in her lungs. Each successful battle came with a little more hope only to be crushed into infinite pieces.

This woman was a loving wife, the mother of seven children, the grandmother of seventeen grandchildren — including my boyfriend, a sister of two and an aunty of seven. In three years I have watched, admired and experienced the strong bond and amazing aura that came from this one family. Their loud, brutally honest and humorous personalities brought out a sense of comfort and belonging to anyone in their presence.

Not being a part of the immediate family released me from any overbearing emotional trauma. I was able to witness grief in all of its five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. By watching from the outskirts of death, I was able to really appreciate the act of grieving and the need to not only say good-bye but to also celebrate one’s life.

Before Death:

‘You’re number two. Number one is my mum and my grandma. I’d do anything for them.’

The house

Crossing the threshold of that house all of a sudden seemed so foreign. An eerie silence replaced the laughter and the loud conversations that once lit up every inch of its space. It was ‘grandma’s house’, the house where everybody gathered every night to eat and enjoy the presence of family and friends. She was lying down on the couch unable to move, surrounding her were her seven children and their spouses, seventeen grand children, two sisters and seven nieces and nephews. All I could do was contribute to the silence and watch as those around me suffered. The hospital

When I first walked into the hospital I was expecting swollen faces of people crying but instead I was introduced to a circle of people laughing, telling jokes and playing cards in the hospital cafeteria. Despite the unexpected joy, every smile almost always followed a millisecond of complete sadness.

The 3rd floor

As the elevator doors opened, I immediately felt an overwhelming sense of death. This floor was the floor to be when medical assistance was no longer convenient and all there was left to do was wait. For this family, waiting came in the form of over 50 people squashed inside a small hospital wing. People were making small talk, cracking a few jokes and telling stories. Despite their reason for being there, I almost felt that everyone was at peace and nothing had changed; but sadly, those moments were only temporary.

The last night

Only two people where allowed to enter her room at a time. I watched her emotionless, pale face try to cover up her agony and listened to her heavy breathing as her children attended to her needs. There was that deafening silence again, the one that made you realise that the last two weeks was not a dream. That was the first time I witnessed true suffering.

What death brings

Death brings sorrow, loss and unbearable pain but it also brings unity. It gathers people together through shared vulnerability and the fear of being alone. It gives those grieving a chance to see light through death’s dark tunnel.

The Immediate Aftermath

‘I can’t believe it. It makes me sick to think that every time I set foot into that house, she won’t be there.’

The wake

Death within the Chinese tradition consists of a number of customs and rituals. The wake in particular was especially admirable. The wake lasted seven days in which people would gather at any point of the day or night to pay their respects at the deceased’s house. Food and drinks are served throughout the day and each night there would be a banquet.

I walked into an open home filled with chairs. Through the hallway on the left hand side there was an altar-like structure with a portrait of the deceased hanging on top. Placed on the table was a large incense candle that was never to be put out followed by bowls of fruit and piles of fake paper money that were to be burned every 10–15 minutes. I was required to bow three times in front of the altar then greeted by one of the male members of the immediate family.

Those seven days were unlike any other. Hundreds of people gathered every night to pay respects; at one point there were about 400 guests all at once. It was overcrowded, hot and hard to breathe yet people stayed.

What death takes

It is simple. To family members, death takes a person that you love. To friends and acquaintances, death takes someone that you know, someone that may have inspired you in one point of your life; someone you’ve shared a coffee with, or someone your parents knew. Nevertheless, no matter how much of an impact that person has made within someone’s life, a death is a death and what is so beautiful about human emotion at the time of death is that we feel the need to be present at the wake, at the funeral and at the cemetery to ‘pay our respects’ to the deceased and support their family.

We do this because we are human and as humans we feel the need to be a part of the celebration of one’s life, to pay our respects to the dead and to support those affected just because. Logically, it would not make any sense to pay tens of thousands of dollars on someone who no longer exists but we do so anyway in the hope that there is a life after death. To hope that we are not just bags of bones and flesh that eventually break down and decay.

The Funeral

I have been to 3 funerals in my lifetime and none of them were as devastatingly beautiful as this one. This day was the day that I watched grief to its full extent. Sounds of the family’s cries where unbearable. Over 500 people came to pay their respects at the Tobin Brothers Funerals in Springvale. There was one eulogy that touched the hearts of every person in that building and every person waiting outside the building. Although I did not understand the speech, it still caused me uncontrollable tears.

I heard the pain of my boyfriend as he let out the first words of his speech ‘Pohpoh wo ai ni’ [grandma I love you]. It was a cry out to her that caused a unity of agonising wails from the audience. It didn’t matter whether or not I understood the eulogy, in that moment, I, alongside every other person in the room understood his pain.

The Burial

It was a beautiful sight. Springvale Botanical Cemetery is filled with fields of green grass, flowers and trees. I remember stepping out of the bus and walking to the burial site. I was in awe. Seeing hundreds of people gathered on top of the green fields, holding bouquets of flowers while waiting for the casket to arrive.

It was a long ceremony. As their last good-bye, the family released 50 white balloons into the air, signifying her journey into the after life. Each person had to approach the casket and spread flower petals followed by a greeting of the deceased’s children and siblings. After that, people were welcomed to desserts and drinks at the site until it was time to bury her. At the end of the day, each person was offered a stick of burning incense and was required to approach the grave and bow three times before they left.

After death

“I miss her so much.”

What death leaves

Death leaves behind a person’s legacy. Ones legacy is not shown through a successful career or the amount of mediocre accomplishments, it is reflected through the actions of those close to that person. A person’s mark on this world is shown through the amount of lives they have touched. In this case, ‘Grandma’s’ legacy will live on through her family. It is shown through the unbreakable bond and respectful qualities of her grandchildren and the kindness and welcoming natures of her children.

Present

To this day I still watch death. I watch how any trigger of her memory can turn the most joyful and inspiring family into tears. I watch how the values she cherished and carried out through her life now shapes the lives of each family member. From their thoughts to their actions, a little piece of her will always be present in this world.