Today marks the second anniversary of the death of my nephew Tom.
There are no road maps to tell us how to manage our grief (both public and private) and our feelings of guilt as we start the slow and painful journey towards ‘recovery’ from the acute and unsustainable feelings of devastation that Tom’s untimely passing has raised.
The death of a loved one is never easy for those left behind. When the loved one is a beautiful young man in the prime of his life, it is very difficult to make sense of what has happened. And so we look to rituals to honour them and to mark their passing through and from this world with the ceremony and reverence they deserve.
When Tom died at the age of 25—suddenly, tragically and a long way from home—his friends and family held a paddle out in the surf in the weeks following his death during the long and painful void spent waiting for him to come home. It was both a comforting and an appropriate ceremony performed by a group of young people who didn’t know what else to do to honour their friend. By gathering together and collectively doing one of Tom’s favourite activities, they were able to both draw strength from and support each other.
The night before Tom’s funeral a prayer vigil was held at the church in his old primary school. Close friends and relatives gathered to say their private goodbyes. A number of tealights were placed on the coffin, each representing a different part of Tom’s short but full life: his time at school and university, his days spent surfing on the Victorian coast and his overseas travels. His friends were invited one by one to make ‘offerings’ at the altar: an i-pod, body board and much-loved guitar were among the objects placed on or by his coffin.
Tom’s funeral the following day was a standing-room only affair. Again his family and friends were included in the ceremony. His brother and sister did an inspired eulogy. The audience laughed and cried along with them, and were transfixed when watching the slide show of the happy vibrant son, brother, cousin and friend that Tom was to every person in the room. The service was brought to a close by a haunting acoustic guitar version of Elvis Presley’s ‘ If I Can Dream’, played by one of his cousins.
There is very little that’s good about the untimely death of a wonderful young person. And yet find some meaning we must, even the most godless among us. The rituals of the church are a source of comfort for some; for others some solace may be found in an informal paddle out that celebrates the majesty of the ocean and the memories of happy times. Both are celebrations of a life that not only touched the world of each of those present, but a life that made that world a better place.
First published in The Sunday Age in August 2013: