Lessons in Love, Loss and Joy

A few days ago, I had the privilege of attending a speech by Sonali Deraniyagala in Colombo. I thought little of the theme or location when I hit ‘join’ on the Facebook event.
Her book had spoken to everyone who read it.
The event was already acknowledging a fair few attendees, and I found myself having to hang onto the door as the crowd extended a small way out of the auditorium.
I know there were quite a few of her readers who couldn’t make it to the event or are not in the country at the moment. Like the word-bug that I am, I feverishly typed little snippets of her speech onto a draft text – lessons and thoughts for myself, initially, but these are thoughts for all to ponder on. With a little bit of my musing, if you don’t mind.

[Please note that not all are direct quotes and some have been expanded from memory based on a few keywords typed in a rush.]

On The Wave and Life After

I had no idea what a tsunami even was.
None of us did. I woke that morning to my family gathered around the television, seeing what looked like a flood with water running through towns not far from ours. It wasn’t until a station broadcasted the simulation of the plate movements and the receding ocean resulting in a gargantuan wave, I couldn’t imagine it.
I then remember taking clothes and food to our church that was housing several people whose houses had been washed away, an area 10 minutes away from where we live.

We were overcome by the deadliest natural disaster in modern times
This sentence swings from a personal experience to a sensational news headline and back. From one family’s story to a statistic, putting a face on one of the many tragedies you read about when the news broke.

I was not afraid of the ocean, if someone took me to the sea, I would gladly jump in, my terror was of the everyday… when I saw that I had a world.
Isn’t that infinitely more difficult? To not be afraid of the ‘culprit‘ but to fear the normalcy of what remains after its destruction has passed. Not even the wreckage, everything but.

What do you do when everything you have vanishes in an instant?
She said this with such almost-abandon, another line in her speech and made the motion of snapping her fingers – click – to illustrate. My mind froze because the gravity of it which had been mounting just settled. How do you find yourself after losing not one, not two but five people you dearly love?

You had a life, a world and in an instant, I had not. Made me wonder if…was any of it real?
Like her snapping fingers, here one second, gone the next. The world’s worst vanishing act.

To learn as if by rote…they are dead.
Like you would a lesson in school that you need to remember and have imprinted in your memory, lest you forget. Lest you let life carry on as if nothing has changed when in fact…

I never lost consciousness in that water so I remember everything.
More often than not, I forget my nightmares. Even the worst ones dim away after a while. I don’t know if it’s mind doing its own filtering to keep the bad ones out but somehow it goes away; this was something that was different.
Do you want to forget it because it took so much from you or do you want to remember because it took so much from you, so that in some way you know what to hold accountable? Or just for the purpose of knowing, one less thing that’s not missing an explanation.

Her world went underwater that day and she says, as she did in her book, that she felt like only reasonable explanation was that she should go too; the fact that she had lived was…without proper reason, she didn’t know why. But she says that the more she thought about why she had hung on so long…
The reason I hung on was thinking, did one of them survive. I can’t go under.
Mother’s intuition x human survival instinct

On ‘Wave’ and Telling Her Story

The session was titled ‘Art and Survival’ so she’s been told to speak on how the process of writing helped her.

I was in pieces. By writing, I was gathering them up and making it all coherent.
Her therapist recommended as a way to help her heal. Undergrad psychology counselling lessons tell you writing works as an excellent catharsis but it was quite interesting to see how that recommendation, before just a point in a textbook, can actually help someone in their journey.
Everything was gone but my heart and mind so I had to use those to conjure everything up.

It’s in the detail, so I anchored myself in reality I lost. In every detail of ordinary life, that makes us human. The humanness that breaks ones heart.
In trying to heal her loss, she revisited the times with the very people who had been taken from her. The seemingly-mundane that she might have brushed off at the time now resonated with life and memory so she put it all down.
This is why her book speaks in a way most memoirs don’t – she’s being so open about the smallest of things, no sugar-coating and dramatising but letting the ordinary-ness (?) of what once was to stand in stark contrast with the extraordinary reality that had come to pass.
I wrote Wave to bring them back to life.

She recounts her younger son’s refusal to comply with his teacher’s definitions for ‘alive’ and ‘not alive’
Maybe he was right. Does it matter? Memory matters, and love comes from memory. It doesn’t die even when someone does, it comes with memory. It’s where our humanness lies.

On Now

People assume that the way to get over any sort of tragedy is to disconnect oneself and let go everything you have to remind you of that time, to ‘move on’. She knows this, but she also knows that it didn’t work for her.
You move on everyday by waking up. I tried to feel it as best I could. If you haven’t known loss then you haven’t known love. If you haven’t known love then you haven’t known joy and to not know joy is a terrible thing.

My writing was not to detach but to reattach when everything was severed.
The writing was supposed to take away confusion and pain but it served as a powerful recreation of her world, because so little seemed real then.

One of the first things I did, when I didn’t want to remember but just wanted to look, was to take photographs.
Obviously this interested me. How it served her to observe and frame everything, trap it in a photo so it couldn’t escape. She found writing more to her style, eventually.

Do you think you’ve become a more empathetic person since this happened?
She said she hadn’t noted a difference, having always been empathetic, but there’s one thing she noted that would be good for everyone who assumes that trauma absolves people of any of their bad qualities;
Your grief doesn’t make you a better person, you are who you were.

People may know someone with stories as painful as yours and those dealing with difficult losses, how can we best support them without being too intrusive?
She loved this question and so did I because it’s one I’ve wondered about so many times. I try to support and be there for friends who need a listening ear and company but it helps to know what someone who would be on the speaking end of one of these conversations would want to hear.
Validate their feelings. What they feel is what they feel. If they express that they’re not okay, that’s okay. If they know something isn’t right is the indicative that they are healing in acknowledging it. Don’t be prescriptive, telling them how they should feel, let them do that themselves.

To say it was a privilege to listen to her would be an understatement. Her words flow in speech like they do in writing – honest, raw and overflowing with emotion. It shocked me, to hear someone being so abrupt and matter-of-fact about something that you’d normally lament over and speak in sorrow about. Her generosity in letting us into her experience changes us as much as it changed her.

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