grief and the value of community

This post is the fifth in a series on Vietnamese customs relating to death, from a personal and a Baha’i perspective.

neighbours gatherIt’s been several months since Quynh’s father Hai passed away, and the one hundred days—the “tốt khốc” (“end of tears”), marking a resumption of “normal” life after a loved one’s passing—have elapsed long since. Being surrounded by family has helped Quynh’s mother Lam cope with the tragic loss greatly. Quynh commented on her mother’s evident sense of joy at the large turnout for the 100th-day commemoration—sixty people or more arrived to pay their respects and to be with the family, if I recall correctly.

Vietnamese people are tightly interconnected with those around them. When I first came to Vietnam, I often mused about how little “personal space” I enjoyed, chalking it up to a case of high population density. Vietnam’s a small country, right? Long but thin. It must be hard to fit 85 million+ people in here. But more than that, the Vietnamese people aren’t afraid to be close as a community. Since returning from my first trip, I began to note how woefully separate, isolated I felt in Canada—as if every trip back home was like shutting myself into a cell. In Vietnam, there are no such barriers isolating people—or at the very least, they’re much less apparent than in the “developed” West. Sure, it means that people can pop in unannounced for a visit at all hours of the day, but hey, is ten minutes’ worth of tea and chatter so much to ask? Or are those ten minutes really better spent holed up watching TV? (Full disclosure: I tend to hole myself up with my laptop, which isn’t much better. And yes, I reproach myself for it.)

Quynh’s family has this interconnectedness in their blood—visiting and receiving friends and family, just to be with them. We often go together to visit relatives each time I come. We always take trips to Dien Ban, a small town in the countryside of Quang Nam province, to see Quynh’s grandmother, who I love dearly. She never remembers me, of course, since, as I’ve mentioned, her memory is long gone—although the last time I saw her, she claimed to remember me from when I was just a little boy, living across the street from Quynh in Da Nang. We also visit the aunts and uncles there—several of them live nearby—and now, since August, we always cross a little further into the bush to visit Hai’s resting place on the way back home. Lam said that visiting is one of the things that she and Hai would do regularly, just to keep in touch with people. An honest culture of home visits. What more could you ever want from your in-laws?

memorial place settingsIn a previous post—in which I described my adventures taking care of the family shrine—I briefly explained the memorial gathering that took place shortly after I arrived, on the 14th day following Hai’s passing. That morning we worked hard to get everything ready quickly, so that we could start around 10:00. Sweep, sweep. Mop, mop. Clean the house. Get candles ready. Buy flowers for the shrine—Hai’s shrine downstairs, and the shrine for the ancestors upstairs. Rice, salad, stew, spring rolls, tofu, and plateful upon plateful of other vegetarian foods were prepared and laid out, first for the spirits of those who had passed away, but then for the family and friends who had gathered. And when the family came, they came in great numbers. I remember feeling awkward, surrounded by so many people—some my age, some older Vietnamese gentlemen and ladies—all speaking a language of which I only had a tenuous grasp, laughing and curiously enjoying my antics and my broken speech. But their presence there had a purpose beyond the laughs, and beyond even paying their respects; they were there to help the family move on. Once, twice, three times, at regular intervals, family and friends come back to be with those close family members who grieve and mourn, to show their fellowship and love. Quynh’s family held memorials at 7, 14, and 21 days following Hai’s passing, but in many other places, Vietnamese families hold weekly memorials, up ’til the 49th day—the “lễ chung thất”. After that, the 100th day is the next milestone, and after that, yearly memorials are held (according to the lunar calendar), the second of which marks a formal end to mourning.

Dieu-Hien T. Hoang, a Registered Nurse at the University of Washington, describes the memorial process as a way of providing structure for the grieving family, calling a proper funeral “more than an empty gesture to the dead, it helps the living to grieve and go on with life”.

To the bereaved, the image of the deceased as part of this world is still fresh in their minds and recedes itself into another world only gradually. In the first three to five days after death, before the funeral takes place, the bereaved grieve in waves; at times deeply and intensely, with quiet moments to work through their feelings in private and to reconnect and receive social support from family, friends, and the community. Each successive wave of deep public grieving takes the deceased a little farther away from the living [...] The last stage, leaving the deceased in company of the ancestors, creates a sense of continuity, a feeling that the deceased is actually going somewhere to be among other loved ones.

Dieu-Hien T. Hoang, RN,
from Death Rituals in Vietnamese Society

The outbursts of crying that were so frequent in the first few weeks gradually subsided as time went on. Quynh tried her best to be strong, and my mother noted that she was lucky—I was able to be by her side during this formidable test. Her mother was much harder hit, and took a long time to fully recover. For months afterward, we observed her struggling to come to terms with her husband’s passing, wrestling with denial, making comments suggesting that her husband was still alive, calling his resting place his “new house”, and so on. At times, it wore our nerves thin, but we managed with the help of the friends and family, and with lots of prayers. We prayed for the unity of the family every night. With time, life gradually returned to normal, or at least semi-normal.

family in whiteJust as family can help wounds to heal, of course, they can cause old wounds to reopen, inadvertently or otherwise. During the Tet season this February, Lam found it hard to receive the flood of guests that would usually have come to wish her and her husband a happy and prosperous New Year, full of health and happiness. Thus there are bumps in the road to overcoming grief. And while the first 100 days nominally mark the “end of tears”, those tears are rarely the last to be cried. In Canada, it’s often said that the first Christmas after losing a loved one is the hardest. It’s natural, because we miss their presence, their warmth, their laughter. So although I came back to Vietnam to celebrate Tet with the family, it was a bittersweet occasion, marked with as many tears as laughs and smiles. But what can we do? We move on, focus on our future. And, above all, as we do every night and every day, we pray. Not just praying with incense—praying in the depths of our souls, for God’s influence in helping these wounds to heal.

One thing that has sustained all of us, apart from our day-to-day busywork, is our service to the Baha’i community. We knew Lam was beginning to recover when she showed herself willing to return to her active life of service as a member of the Spiritual Assembly in Da Nang, dutifully taking notes in meetings, visiting the Baha’i friends, studying with them and accompanying them in their own service. “When sadness visits us,” ‘Abdu’l-Baha once said, “we become weak, our strength leaves us, our comprehension is dim and our intelligence veiled. The actualities of life seem to elude our grasp, the eyes of our spirits fail to discover the sacred mysteries, and we become even as dead beings.” But joy, He explains, gives us wings. “[W]hen our thoughts are filled with the bitterness of this world, let us turn our eyes to the sweetness of God’s compassion and He will send us heavenly calm!” Then, as He describes, we become able “to cope with the world and to find our sphere of usefulness”. When I wrote about the life of a Vietnamese son-in-law, I ended off by telling the story of my conversations with Lam following her husband’s death, while she struggled to see the way forward, to see a future for herself. And in time, bolstered by her determination to serve the way her husband had always served, that veil was lifted from her eyes, and she was able to find a new sphere of usefulness for herself.

So life goes on. Friends and family continue to pop in unannounced, to offer incense, drink tea and chat. New friends are made, babies are born, the healing words of God help to soothe the hurt. Time goes on, and we grow closer, learn to support each other better, become more and more interconnected. Indeed, each time I come back to Vietnam, armed with a few more words and sentences in Vietnamese than before, I feel a little closer to those around me, like I fit in a little bit more, even in the crush of people. I feel a little more part of the family—the immediate family, the extended family, and even the greater family, that nationwide sea of “anh” and “chi”—brothers and sisters.

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