Many of us through modern forms of communication have witnessed after the fact the natural calamities that have beset our world in the last decade. The great tsunami of 2004 from Thailand to Sri Lanka, eventually reaching Africa via the coast of Somalia, recurs in memories of the TV images seen of this event. The tsunami that afflicted Japan’s Sendai coast sweeping away houses, farms, boats and infrastructure, and its consequences of nuclear radiation from the crippled nuclear power plant, are a fact that we have seen with their effects recurring over and over again. And fresh and overwhelming to our minds, far away from the Visayas as most of us were, was the earthquake in Bohol that damaged about two dozen heritage churches, followed by the typhoon devastation and storm surge that assaulted the Visayas again in November last year.
In all these catastrophic, uncontrolled and almost surreal events, human beings–who lived and loved, who went to school and worked, who ate and drank, traveled and dreamt, had families, loved ones, memories, ups and downs–were suddenly and unexpectedly removed, having disappeared into the calamity.
Mortality is part and parcel of the human condition. We live and then we must die. We expect it to be rhythmical as in the Bible, “a time to live and a time to die.” But often that rhythm can be upended and the untimely event assaults us, undoing those left behind by the death of their nearest and dearest. Nowhere is this clearer than in “acts of God” whether sickness or accidents or calamity. Then as sentient beings those left behind are left to accept the terrible and dreadful, the absence, sudden and unjustified, of a loved one, of loved ones, of fellow human beings who as such they identify and feel for, miss and grieve over.
Writing about grief is personal and perilous. One can be undone by it and so overwhelmed as not to make sense enough for the reader to empathize, to identify or to begin to understand.
One such book has survived the perils of writing about grief, Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave (Vintage Books, New York, 2013). It is an extraordinary book based on a true event – the loss of the author’s husband, two young sons and both her parents in the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004. It was the day after Christmas at a beach resort when the sea came roaring in and smashed lives, buildings, hopes and dreams in one fell swoop.
The aftermath on the author is one of refusal to believe, which made her try to avoid sleeping or eating or living because she could not be normal anymore and accept having to wake up and face the reality that her whole nuclear family had been carried to the other world in one instance on the back of a tsunami. One day everyone is with her and the next day, the next month, the next years, she is alone as if abandoned to painful memories, unparalleled sorrow.
She reacts but refuses to leave her room in her aunt’s home in Colombo, planning to kill herself, if not with a butter knife (which she tried) then with pills and alcohol. Foiled in consummating her suicide by a vigilant extended family, she becomes violent. Her violent urges are set off by the sight of the belongings of her gone children, remnants of research papers of her academic husband (she herself is an academic) and the fact that her parents’ empty house in Sri Lanka is rented out by her brother to a Dutch family.
She seeks hallucinatory moments with drugs and alcohol, or resorts to revenge-like tactics by harassing the Dutch family, haunting their premises at night, calling them on the phone in the wee hours, banging their gate, or suddenly playing loud music in times of rest. In short, acting insane so as not to face the reality that multiple lives of her loved ones are no longer in her world.
And yet she has to come to terms with it because that is the fact.
The effort to do so takes years of more pain, more patience, allowing for memories to be revisited over and over again, no matter what the cost in grief. Grief changes but does not wholly disappear into the great blue yonder. She has to live with it, deal with it by coming back to the missing, the absent, the why and where. It is a labor of love from an experience of having loved and lost.
It takes years of travel, work, interacting with friends, old and new, facing the playmates of her children as they review their own memories, asking the plain and unflinching questions of why they are gone. Bereft of her children, she sees their contemporaries grow and imagines her own at that stage. She goes back to her home in London after years in Sri Lanka evading the time when she must return, seeing the house as she left it for a three week vacation in Sri Lanka. It is flooded with remembrances of times past. Wistfulness, longing, questioning, pain and love come in waves. The portraits she paints of husband and sons are touching, affectionate, matter-of-fact, loving. The memories of her parents are poignant. She takes each person individually, she cannot take them all at once. It is the human heart in grief.
Sonali narrates it clearly, finely, completely without drowning us in sentimentality or heaping on us the overwhelming despair that can occur to us too.
She discards denial by no longer suppressing memories or evading thoughts about them as she did in the beginning. In time her grief has come to a place of dignity, truthfulness, courage.
After Tacloban, Samar, Cebu and Northern Palawan’s typhoon losses of human lives of last year, we can infer the grief of those left behind in these communities.
Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala, who lost all in Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami must surely find echoes in these places bereft by sudden and unspeakable calamity. For those of us who have been spared, Sonali’s bereavement is a humbling experience as we get an inkling of catastrophic loss and its consequences on a fellow human being who nevertheless in time plucks up her courage and keeps her dignity.