Tuesday, 10 April 2012

It's my party and I'll cry if I want to

She died in an accident.  He told us about it over dinner.  The easy conviviality was abruptly interrupted.  Pleasantries were pushed aside.  I shivered.  Tomorrow the family would assemble to celebrate what would have been her ninth birthday.  A three year old missing for 24 hours and found dead following gas explosion at her family home.  The tragedy was as surreal as it was horrific.  

Her 11 year old cousin had apparently commented upon the anticipated ritual, remarking to his sister, "she's in a better place" before reconsidering his statement, and finding it to be inaccurate.  How could she be in a better place, without her mother, father and brother?  Where was she?  Explanation was not forthcoming.  

Grief is very personal.  Outliving one's child defies reason.  So, her mother will prepare a birthday party for her absent child.  Balloons will be inflated, banners hung and cakes baked.  Guests will arrive, but will not bear gifts.  They will come together knowing they will not see the birthday girl.  They celebrate a life cut so brutally short.  A life that could have been.  

There will be acknowledgment of this child's untimely death.  The family will visit her grave.  Her cousin could not conceive of her being there, and yet something is there.  Something tangible.  They will perhaps sit there awhile.  

But, for the most part, the gathering will be of an altogether different nature.  There will be sugar, and spice and all things nice.  There will be bright colours, and music.  There will be laughter, and there will be comfort for a mother grieving the loss of what never will be.  The unbearable will be made just a little gentler.

Death and ritual are comfortable bedfellows.  Human frailty means we are inclined to cling to anything that gives substance to that which challenges rationality. 

I have come to see this in my work with those who are left behind when someone disappears.  Unlike this family, who know exactly what happened to their baby girl, those who contact the charity Missing People have only maybes, possiblys and probablys.  On some days these suffice, but mostly they do not.  There can be no closure.  There are no stages.  Different theories abound, even within the closest of families.  When someone goes missing, those who loved them are left suspended in limbo.     

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