„I don’t want to sound rude, but your daughter appears to be – well, how can I put it gently – rather slow on the uptake?“ Mrs. K., primary school teacher at Frankfurt’s less-than-exclusive Riedhofschule seems to be at the end of her (educational) tether, seemingly trying to coax some vital clues out of my mum, who looks completely unfazed.
It’s the summer of 1984, one hit wonder „Life is live“ is blasting from all radio stations, we have just arrived from Singapore and at the tender age of 6, I feel like I have just descended onto a new planet. A planet dominated by a scary language full of terrifying guttural sounds, of which I can’t make neither head nor tail.
„But it’s because she doesn’t speak German, that will soon resolve itself!“ retorts my mother, with an unshakeable belief in her daughter’s intellectual capacities. The linguistic veil soon lifts, I take to my „new language“ like a duck to water and no longer feel socially isolated.
Fast-forward 34 years and four months later – it’s early December, pre-Christmas frenzy has engulfed the whole of Germany, with a seemingly never-ending stream of tourists flocking here to savour the beauty of traditional Christmas markets. Christmas usually never fails to exert its fairy-tale magic on me, but things are different this year round. My dad who for as long as I can remember has never had more than an innocuous cold is suddenly taken so ill that he has to be hospitalised. From December 3 onwards, an avalanche of bad news will swallow us whole as a family, culminating in the most feared and unthinkable outcome.
In the early hours of December 13, with no-one by his side, the strongest man I know, succombs to Stage IV lymphoma, leaving us all stunned and shocked. Encapsulated in our cell of grief, Christmas – oddly enough – becomes our saviour. Between organizing the funeral on the one hand, and Christmas for my little nieces and nephews on the other, we somehow make it through the darkest tunnel I have ever travelled through.
To make it through to the other side means not only adding layers of emotional resilience, but also adopting another language to make sense of the greatest taboo of mankind. Shortly after my dad died, a friend of mine who lost her dad the year before, said that the first year of grief, everything would be plunged in grey, with colours slowly returning the following years.
While immersed within the grey zone, one thing that quickly becomes evident is the linguistic barrier that divides a grieving person from the rest. Death is well and truly the elephant in the room. With 70% of those informed showing undivided sympathy and kind words, some people’s reactions and statements have left me utterly speechless. „Chin up“, „life goes on“, „your dad is in a better place now“, „it’s not normal to not feel happiness six weeks down the line“, „other people also have problems“ (e.g. being a single mum, having neurodermitis, having trouble with their parents), „so-and-so just lost her husband and is not whinging around like you are“, and the list goes on and on.
I’m torn between whether I find these utterances more abhorrent than people not reacting full-stop, walking straight past me in the office or train platform, without even coming out with the minimalistic „my condolences“. It really felt like I was thrown into a universe again where I had to learn a wholly new set of linguistic codes to grapple with a reality I never asked to be part of. And felt transported back to my 6-year old self. Back then lost in translation like Scarlett Johansson’s alter ego in the eponymous movie, now lost in the dark valley of grief.
What has astounded me the most is the discrepancy between the unabashed outpouring of grief for celebrities on social media and the overwhelming inability in the private sphere to show a modicum of understanding and empathy beyond the four-week threshold of somebody’s passing. None of us are going to make it alive out of here, so perhaps it’s high time to start verbalising the unspeakable and integrate death more openly into our lives. After all, grief is the price of love, as Queen Elizabeth II. so aptly said <3
(Editor’s note: this article was written back in February- out of respect for my family’s privacy I decided to publish it half a year after my dad’s demise)