What we can learn from grief

By Suzana Jacmenovic | 31 Mar 15

3 June 1987. The two male taxidermists who had prepared his body for our viewing are still lingering in this funeral parlour somewhere in Tijuana. His body is laid on a table, he is in a pair of jeans and a shirt I recognise. This is the first I’ve seen of my brother since landing in the Americas. When I last saw him at the departure gate of Tullamarine airport, we hugged. I felt him and heard him. He was alive – but now in front of me, my brother is cold to touch, lifeless. Around his body my mother is screaming and my father weeping, and my fourteen-year-old heart and mind are struggling to grapple with this new reality.

It was a new reality that marked a turning point in our lives. From now on my family will live with the pain and sadness of life without my brother. I’ll go on to witness all our family and friends struggle to accept the unexpected and sudden death of our eighteen-year-old boy.

I am reminded of my own family’s emotional struggles when I hear the out-pouring of grief from Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran’s family and friends. And it cuts me deep; hearing their sadness, the families’ pleas, even when there are no tears their torment is visible.

And we are all waiting for some release from this grief through an act of clemency for these young men. We all recognise good reason for clemency to be given, for the men have reformed since their original arrest in 2005; during Andrew and Myuran’s appeal the prison’s governor Siswanto described them as ‘model prisoners’: “I personally cannot accept their execution”.

29 January 2015. A national candlelight vigil is held in honour of Andrew and Myuran’s forthcoming executions. Pleas for further negotiation to prevent Andrew and Mayan’s death are at their most urgent. On the ABC during Q&A, an old childhood friend of Myuran’s becomes distraught when articulating the pending execution. Her breakdown into tears is familiar to me, as it is to all of us who have experienced grief and its struggle in attempting to reason with emotions. It is painful. Myuran’s sister Brintha has said “Killing him; it’s just not killing him, it’s killing my mum, my dad, me, my brother, because I don’t think we’ll ever come to terms with it. I see us falling apart”.

In witnessing these emotional pleas in anticipation of death, I ask myself – what can we learn from grief? On 17 February this year more candles were lit, this time in memory of Reza Berati, marking the first anniversary of his passing. A year ago snap public candlelit vigils took place across Australia in response to his death. Reza died while in government care on Manus Island. He was murdered – clubbed across the head with a rock – during a riot that broke out within the Regional Processing Centre. The candlelit vigils were also a campaign. Australians took to social media using #LightTheDark and #RIPRezaBerati to communicate to the Federal Government that deaths resulting from gross negligence while in government care can not be tolerated.

Reza died at 23. He was an architecture graduate hoping for a second chance of life in Australia. He was known as a “gentle giant“, both for his tall and muscular stature and for the fact that he his fellow Manus Island detainees knew him as someone who was so worried that moths and bugs on the ground would be stepped on that he would always pick them up and put them back in the garden.

We have heard the grief and pleas from the families of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran’s families. There have also been pleas from Reza’s parents, his sister Kowsar, his brother-in-law and uncle, pleas for an explanation: “Your sister wishes to see your wedding ceremony – but you are gone; you died in a sad way.” Reza’s body was retuned to Iran. The memorial service held in Al-Mahdi mosque in Tehran was a site of intense grief; Reza’s sister was unable to stand from emotion.

As Andrew and Myuran await their fate together, Reza too had a companion during his incarceration, the 24-year-old fellow Iranian Hamid Kehazaei; a friend who met him in death on 5 September 2014, not more than seven months after Reza’s own fatality. Hamid died from sepsis due to neglect from the Manus Island’s medical staff and his delayed evacuation onto the mainland for necessary treatment. Fifty fellow asylum seekers on Manus Island attested to the medical neglect they witnessed: “they killed Hamid ruthlessly. He died slowly, slowly in front of our eyes in less than a week.” Hamid’s mother Goldone tells us that she never had a chance to speak to her son after he became ill. His brother Mehei Kehazaei said that the family are bewildered and distraught; they don’t understand how Hamid’s death could have happened from an infection in his foot: “the pressures we’ve faced have caused all to take medication to deal with it.”

As the negotiations to prevent Andrew and Myuran’s executions have argued that the death penalty is a terrible breach of human rights, the circumstances of Reza and Hamid’s deaths also breached human rights.

I recognise that the lives of these families will never be the same. A life of learning to accept the pain of a loss you wish you could have saved – somehow. Turning over scenarios of how death could have been avoided.

Kim Nguyen also knows of this all too well, after the execution of her son Van Tuong in Singapore on 2 December 2005, at the age of 25: “I have a terrible life. I want to die, but I can’t because I still have [my son] Khoa. Khoa and I cry a lot.” In her final goodbye to her son she held his hand, because she was denied her request to hug him. In the English language there is no noun for parents who have lost a child, as there is orphan for children who have lost their parents – and I wonder if in Vietnamese, Chinese, Tamil or Farsi there also is no word for parents who have lost their child.

Suzana Jacmenovic is a writer and social worker.

Feature image courtesy of getup.org.au

This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council, its arts funding and advisory body.