Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Sharing grief across the world

Losing a loved one is especially hard when you’re so far away from home, but there are ways to share grief with those there and elsewhere, writes Luke Kenny.

Mon, Jun 11, 2012, 20:02


Losing a loved one is especially hard when you’re so far away from home, but there are ways to share grief with those there and elsewhere, writes Luke Kenny.

Luke Kenny on the road in Vietnam

Has anything changed at home?”

Nah, not much, same old, same old”

So I get on with living my emigrant nomadic travels in Hanoi. Living con gusto, like we said at home. You need it in a city assembled in a hurry and now bursting and cracking at the seams, with a crane dotted skyline eerily reminiscent of that old bugger, the tiger.

Tiger and recessionary doom or not I would still be here. I completed a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) with the intention of finding work abroad before the start of the next school year. The appeal of slaving nervously over 300 or so speculative applications was minimal compared to the opportunity to move to a well-paid job in a country of rapid change with a population of 90 million people, and a fascinating but cruel and bloody history.

I love my job teaching English to wealthy but unfailingly polite and often brilliant Vietnamese kids. I have started playing gaelic football, something I could never have foreseen. I had the chance to meet up with my aunt, uncle and cousins in New Zealand who have been on the other side of the world for as long as I can remember.

The freedom and joy of bike tripping around a magnificent countryside of rolling hills and endless rice paddies with new comrades is immense. The arrival of a friend, or friend of a friend, who is also criss-crossing the globe and has touched down in the Orient, is eagerly anticipated.

This is a country where the simple pleasure of commuting to work on a scooter in sunshine has the wind flying through my hair; where old ladies will laughingly offer outrageous prices for baskets of fruit; where hospitality involves as much rice wine as possible as early as possible.

The lack of any decent electronic music and my lazy attitude to learning Vietnamese are the biggest drawbacks. I have managed to turn the former to my advantage and gotten a good reception as a small time DJ and promoter, surely helped by the lack of alternatives I remain steadfastly “too busy” to anything about the latter.

In true Vietnamese style, the bar which was our most recent venue has been shut down, which is not that surprising given its location on the pavement underneath the historic Long Bien bridge, directly opposite the bustling marketplace of the same name and around the corner from a cop shop. That intoxicating you-can-do-anything feeling, the whizzing of hordes of Honda Waves, draws me in and fuels every day.

Now, everything has changed.

I heard on a Monday that she was fighting cancer for her life, suspended in a morphine bubble somewhere between heaven and earth, unsure of the way to go. I found out on Friday that she was lost to this cruel world. Those five days were brutally tough. A beautiful friend who I spent countless weekends with in Dublin celebrating life and freedom, youth and happiness dispatched; tragically ripped off the face of a suddenly very wide world. I zombied through work, blank on the outside, turmoil on the inside. Lunched on my own. Contacted friends around the world. Spread the awful news. Fessed up to the boss who had noticed my altered state. Often trapped, verging on tears, by a memory, or a feeling of desperate helplessness, or of despair at this intense cruelty.

Let me give you a picture of this fallen angel for without it the story has no soul. Elegance personified, she somehow managed to pull off a wild perm and a Kerry accent without losing a shred of her royalty. Helped by a beaming smile, an infectious personality and well versed in the fine arts of intelligent banter and spontaneous behavior she cemented a place for herself in the hearts of everyone she met. As is the way of things, that group of friends has aged and splintered. She ended up in Barcelona with a long term boyfriend and a recently completed thesis.

Still blessed with a dazzling personality and a shining spirit, I was lucky enough to share an afternoon with her on the beach during a trip there two months before I left. We shared a nomadic spirit and a great friendship that spilled over into talk of glorious times past and the possibilities, speculation and planning of future dreams. Now, that’s all turned to sand.

On the Saturday morning I left on a prearranged motorbike trip up north to take advantage of a long weekend. What is normally an antidote to the madness of this growling city proved to be an antidote to something more profound. Zipping along country roads in sunny valleys, swimming in countless rivers and lakes, celebrating freedom with four friends, being greeted with enthusiastic hospitality everywhere we went reminded me that there is still beauty in this world.

Now, what I remember about those five days is the way friends all around the world reached out to each other by texting, Skyping and leaving messages on Facebook. There was an outpouring of grief and bewilderment, compassion and tenderness. News was stuttering and conversations were tough but there we were, a group of people trapped in a nightmare, spread far and wide seeking each other out, devastated by this hammerblow.

Despite receiving many messages referring to my being on my own out here it was in those five days that I felt closer to my friends than at any time over the last two years. United by grief and shock, this family of people sent comfort and release to each other over an unimaginably brutal week. I can picture them all in despair, in dark rooms around the globe staring at computer screens, conducting their own vigils, knowing this was an event that tied you to the past, to friends, to home. The support of friends was cherished, united as we were by something so real, yet, crushingly, so intangible and unfathomable.

After receiving the worst news from a friend we shared memories, traded insults and celebrated our fallen sister whilst both looking at the same photo album on another friend’s Facebook page. Although digitally enhanced and spanning the globe it was as real as any wake or funeral I’ve ever been to, somehow capturing that collective process of saying goodbye and cherishing the memories.

Anything can happen over here, but it’s tough when it happens there. Rest in peace sweet princess, may a flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.