“Are you feeling better?” The middle-aged lady wasn’t, but I certainly could have said something more helpful, especially after having done my best to not intrude on her quiet sobbing for the past hour. Through her tears and sniffles the otherwise confident and self-assured ma’am treated me kindly, patiently; indulging a journalist as little more than a clueless boy (which I was) – “Not really. My father died this morning.”
Bereavement counselling, unfortunately, isn’t an in-flight service on a non-stop flight from Hong Kong to London. There are few less ideal environments to grieve in the wake of a fresh wound. She was alone and thirty thousand feet above Earth, with nowhere to go in Economy Class and surrounded by tired, thirsty, hungry strangers. It was also a bit cramped for both of us. Restricted spaces aren’t ideal for holding hands or hugging, for offering reassurances of sympathetic company. We managed, fortunately.
…there is no one who does not share her or his life with someone else.
The awkwardness was in part due to the bizarre circumstances that had brought us together. Our flight had been delayed, enough time for her to receive the heart-breaking news at Chek Lap Kok before take-off. On the plane I sat next to a young girl when her father, who sat behind her, hastily asked if I minded swapping seats: surely no doting papa wants to be separated from his girl for a fifteen-hour flight. I cooperated, moving to sit in his seat, behind my booked row. Shuffling in late to join me would be, ironically, a different daughter who had just lost a different father.
Who are we except our relationships? People declared themselves as sons or daughters of their fathers. Some religious people declare themselves as disciples of a school or master. In this world of interconnection, there is no one who does not share her or his life with someone else. Even a yogi or priest experiences the most precious relationship of all: the love, compassion and friendship between a sentient being and a higher power. Human ties are far more fragile and impermanent. That is when, as a Chinese saying goes, the trivial becomes crucial, and the mundane is revealed as sacred.
…yet it was the only role that any sensible individual could have fulfilled…
Being silently present (and handing over the essential tissue); the occasional glass of water to relieve the sore, parched throat. Quiet moments in each other’s subdued presence, some small talk about work and life – it’s the seemingly meaningless, everyday things done to pass the time, those fifteen hours stuck together high in the empyrean, that become excruciatingly important.
It would be arrogant to have felt like her confidante in any way, yet it was the only role that any sensible individual could have fulfilled at the time. It is one of those occasions when commonsense obligation and a deep sense of unworthiness become one, indistinguishable.
…we might just be able to help provide a tiny fragment of closing to the sadness…
What else could have been done? What else can we do in a world where many lives change because one heart stops beating? In the face of grief, the wisdom of the sage Śāntideva comes to mind. He asks us to force ourselves to face up to the truth of life, which is death. Buddhism, in many ways, developed out of its founder’s encounter with death. It’s a commonsense if morbid thought.
The sagacity of Alan Bennett’s Posner comes close: “Nothing saves anyone’s life, sir. It just prolongs their death.” But if we can bear witness to others’ fragility and vulnerability, even in our all-too-limited ways, we might just be able to help provide a tiny fragment of closing to the sadness that will inevitably visit everyone.