'I Am Still Not Sure How To Deal With This Unique Form Of Grief'
It’s strangely appropriate that I was away from home when I first learned of the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka.
I was with my family visiting friends in Canberra. We arrived back at their house after an Easter picnic, and I stretched out on the couch, ready to sleep off my food coma.
But first, I checked my phone.
My heart skipped a beat as I read the news -- a series of explosions had ripped through churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. At that point, the death toll was reported as 20.
I immediately called out to my parents. Straight away Mum rang her family in Sri Lanka to check that they were okay. Later that night, Dad called to check on his side of the family.
Eventually, we got word that our loved ones were all safe.
But by that time, the death toll had begun rising. As the scale of the attacks became clear, any relief that I’d felt that my own family was safe was outweighed by the sheer magnitude of the violence that had been perpetrated in the country of my ancestors.
And so the process of dealing with the grief of the attack began.
I’m a first generation Australian. My parents migrated here from Sri Lanka after they got married almost 25 years ago. But my Australian identity sits alongside my Sri Lankan cultural heritage. I am as much a product of Sri Lankan culture as I am of my Australian upbringing. I have visited the country several times and I’m very much in touch with my Sri Lankan roots.
I’ve spoken with Mum about what we both feel when we go back. Having spent the early part of her childhood in Sri Lanka, Mum has always felt a strong connection; a connection that makes perfect sense when you look at her personal history.
I, on the other hand, have always felt an inexplicable sense of having come home whenever I visit Sri Lanka. I feel an almost spiritual connection to the place. And I sense an affinity with its people in a way that I’ve never experienced here in Australia. For me, this makes very little sense. I was born and raised in the Western suburbs of Sydney. Sri Lanka has never been my home.
I assume that this inexplicable connection to a country and a culture that I cannot claim as mine is typical of first-generation children across the Western world. The bridge between cultures is one that we traverse every day.
Some of us walk through the doors of our homes and speak an entirely different language to the one we speak outside. We defer to our elders as a sign of respect at home and struggle when we are asked to lead teams including people older than us in our workplaces.
We rail against cultural expectations which seem limiting in comparison to the expectations of the Western society we have grown up in. We find a way to walk the tightrope of fitting into the country that our families have come to and claiming our cultural heritage.
But an event like the bombings in Sri Lanka upset that balance. Right now I am sad. I am tired. I am filled with grief. But it feels wrong to claim that grief. I don’t know if it is mine to claim.
While my skin colour, religion and ancestry match many of the victims of the attacks I can never claim to understand their life experiences. After all, we live in two very different worlds. And unlike my parents and extended family I cannot claim a connection to the country by birth or life experience.
But here, in Australia I am the touchpoint for many of my friends to this tragedy. Some of my closest friends have reached out in the last 24 hours to check on the safety of my family and to check on my welfare. And I am so grateful for their love and care. But to tell them that I am struggling to comprehend this violence and deal with the aftermath seems disingenuous.
While it is true that I am angry that this has happened and grieving for the lives that were lost, I am unable to justify these feelings. Especially when the response to hearing that my family’s loved ones are safe is, “I’m glad your people are okay.” Yes, I’m glad that my people are okay too. But every one of those victims are my people.
We share a faith or an ethnicity or in the case of the foreign nationals who were killed a love of the country. I did not lose family members in the way that Western culture would perceive it. But in Sri Lankan collectivist culture, I have lost family. The victims and I share a history and a humanity that binds us.
I have felt this loss deeply and I will continue to feel it in the coming days. I am still not quite sure how to deal with this unique form of grief that I feel as a first-generation child. But I do know that in times of sorrow and loss I have always been sustained by my community. And so I will welcome the embrace of the people who care about me -- Sri Lankans and Australians alike.
In both cultures I have experienced the kind of love that brings comfort and healing. And it is when I am in that space that I feel truly at home.