When someone dies – as my great-aunt did a few days ago – the world burdens us with certain expectations; we are expected to sombrely mourn for a matter of days or weeks, and then move on and go back to normal. For most of us, though, grief has its own timetable and logic, and will be no more ignored than any other aspect of love.
Sometimes you feel relief that someone’s suffering has ended, or satisfaction at their life well lived. Sometimes you feel nothing most of the time, but once in a while, for the rest of your life, sharply feel their absence. Quite often we need celebration and catharsis, even when we feel obliged to conform to long faces and whispers. For that reason, I’ve always admired the Irish wake.
Wakes give you a certain license to do all the things that people actually need to do when they feel loss, and which might be frowned upon at your conventional funeral – to tell jokes, laugh, kiss, drink, and even behave a bit inappropriately, surrounded by your community in an upwelling of comfort and joy. Most of all, you celebrate the person that was, and it is their presence, rather than Death’s, that hangs in the air around you.
A few years ago, after a friend of ours died – the husband of a woman I just hugged an hour ago at a friend’s farm, in fact – The Girl had many questions.
“Papa, what does it feel like to die?”
I don’t know first-hand, honey, I told her – I’ve never died.
“Why do we have to die?”
If we didn’t, I told her, no new babies could be born.
“I wish it didn’t have to end, though.”
I know, I said. But that’s what gives it value.
Photo: The Girl, around the time of the conversation.