Recently I lost my father in law, David. A kind, gentle man, he passed away on December 19, after fighting cancer unsuccessfully. I was crushed, for he was more of a father to me than my own biological dad. I came to the States 13 years ago with nothing but two suitcases. Everything I owned, except my precious books, was in those suitcases. I was worried and I was wary of moving to a new country, getting married and leaving my family behind. David sensed it and welcomed me with open arms.
I remember having a fight with Jeffrey and storming out of the house, crying. Was walking aimlessly when he caught up with me, took me for a ride in the truck and gave me some sound advice. I loved how he called me by my Chinese name, which ironically means “angel”. He used to also drive me insane. He knew how to rattle me. He would pick up my kids when they were still babies, and turn them upside down in front of me, which he knew would anger me. He used to laugh seeing me mad.
Romanians -and other cultures- tend to gather around the one who is losing a friend or family member. Death brings a very raw emotion in our culture, grief is felt with an acutness which I find unique. It is for many, a traumatizing experience. Traditionally, in the country side, Romanians hired “bocitoare”,-wailers, to mourn the death of a loved one.
David’s death is my first experience with how Americans react to death. I sent out notices to few of my American friends about his passing. I heard back from very few, and I heard nothing from others. Couple asked if there was something they can do, and that was the end of it. One of my friends, ironically the man who works at the Hospice where David passed, was there for me the whole way and came to the funeral.
My bosses, who are Chinese and Italian respectively and their daughter, my direct boss, sent heart-felt notes, and care packages for the family. Had they not been travelling, they would have attended the funeral. Since then, they have honored my father in law with donations to the Denver Hospice, and David has a plaque dedicated to him at the facility.
So I still found myself musing over and wondering, what is it that makes some of us so wary of death? Is it respect for the family, the fear of “bothering”, or is it just denial for the concept of death? Is the fear of witnessing vulnerability, not knowing how to react to one’s grief? Is it a dissociation from a reality that we will all face one day?
Not sure. In all honesty, I look at my own American family. I witnessed my husband and his brother’s grief. A very quiet, introvert way of dealing with the very raw pain. I sensed it more than I witnessed it. Fighting back-hard-the tears. I read my husband eulogy to his father, because he was in too much pain and afraid to break down in front of an audience. And then I look at my mom-in-law, who is Chinese, whose emotions were so deep, so out in the open. Prying her away from my father-in-law after his passing, and at the services, holding the open casket and moving as in a dance to the sound of the first song they danced to together 43 years ago.
Is there a moral to the story? Not really. Just the observation that we all react differently to our own grief and to the grief of others. And that our expectations are just that: expectations and nothing more.