Funerals and coworkers

Recently a coworker’s dad died. His dad had been declining in health for the past year and my coworker would tell us stories almost every day about how difficult it was to care for his very stubborn father who refused a caregiver or going to a skilled nursing facility and insisted on staying at home and having his son take care of him. He even took a part-time schedule so he could take care of his frail dad. So, when we got the call that his dad died somewhat unexpectedly, many of us were shocked and heartbroken for him. But some people’s reaction seemed a little more non-chalant and it was back to work pretty quickly for them. I understand now that it wasn’t because of any malice or coldness, it was because sometimes people simply don’t know how to react upon hearing of someone’s death. It’s definitely an unwelcomed interruption to the normal flow of life and what we know how to do.

I feel so lucky to be a part of a culture that knows how to treat death or at least has a method for it, so we’re not all left to flounder individually around how to deal with death. In our Indian Muslim culture, if someone in the community dies we notify everyone so as many people as possible can participate in the death and grieving rituals, or at the very least call the family or send them some flowers. In modern times, this looks like an email I receive from the American Muslim Women’s Association or the Pakistani Association about a death in the community.

Or I find out about it through Facebook. Recently I saw that the father of an old family friend from Phoenix who I knew when I was in college passed away. Her father was at my dad’s funeral and helped with the burial process. Having lost my own father, I knew the anguish she and her family must be going through and so I did what I’ve been trained to do, I spread the news. I told my siblings about it, checking if anyone them knew her or her family. Then I called my mom, who has been friends with her mom for about 20 years and we made a plan to “go sit” at her house and take her some food when I am in town.

In our culture there is the tradition of mourning gatherings where people get together and pray for the soul of the departed. Often people will bring food so the mourning family isn’t burdened by preparing food for everyone in their time of grief. These gatherings occur at certain intervals after the death, like a few days after, then again forty days after then again, a year after.

In addition to the gatherings, people drop by to pay their respects and this can last for months. It may seem to some an intrusion, but having people drop by is a way to honor the departed and also a way to share in the grief with one another. If people are out of town, then they call or send cards or flowers and even these simple acts are tremendously meaningful and appreciated. I know this is a custom in the West as well. Somehow the acknowledgement of others helps you process your grief and makes you feel less alone in the world. Death is a part of life, and it only makes sense that we integrated it into our lives with rituals and reaching out and gathering.

My coworker who lost his dad is Chinese and he told us that his aunts helped him with their cultural rituals around the death. I went to the funeral yesterday. I was a bit nervous because I hadn’t been to a non-Muslim funeral in ages and I was wondering what this would be like and I fretted about what to wear and finally found a somber outfit that I thought would be appropriate. In Muslim funerals, we don’t typically wear black.

The service was held at a Chinese mortuary, which, I suppose was pretty similar to an American mortuary in the way it’s laid out. But when I walked in, someone handed me a tiny white envelope, which I later found out held a quarter and must be spent on something sweet before I reached home because it would be bad luck to have that quarter in the house because it symbolizes death. This is a Chinese tradition.

I walked in the room where the service would be held and encountered the first few rows filled with people, mostly Chinese folks who were either family or friends of the deceased. I scanned the room for familiar faces and saw the row where my coworkers were seated. I walked over and waved and they were happy to see me, as I them, and it was a bonding experience to be there in solidarity to support our beloved coworker. The experience of sharing in the grief of my coworker stretched and made our relationship stronger, no longer were we just coworkers, but a family of sorts.

I noticed my boss was restless and kept reading a piece of paper, then I saw my bereaved coworker come over and talk with her and I realized that somehow my boss was going to be a part of the service. My coworker had struggled to find someone to speak at his dad’s funeral. None of his family members wanted to do it and neither did he. It was surprising to me that though his dad had lived in San Francisco since he was a kid, that his son couldn’t find someone who knew him to speak at his funeral. It turns out his dad wasn’t a part of any organized group, a church or a temple, or even a Kiwanis club, he was just a family man who kept to himself. And his family was taciturn and weren’t the public speaking sort.

I learned my boss, a 70-year-old white woman from Virginia who has lived in San Francisco for decades, would deliver the eulogy, even though she had never met the man. I was tremendously moved that she would step in and fill this gap and I realized how much my boss was not just a boss, she was a second mother to my bereaved coworker.

The eulogy was perfect. My boss spoke of the deceased’s story, how he was born in China but had emigrated to San Francisco as a child with his parents. How his father worked in restaurants to support the family until he had saved enough money to buy a laundromat. And eventually the deceased took over the laundromat for his dad and ran it for 35 years. He had three children and one of them ended up working at my boss’s architecture firm for 6 years. This was a beautiful story of the immigrant struggle and success and a great way to honor the man who died.

It’s amazing that when there is a gap, how it usually gets filled in the most unexpected ways. Though my coworker came from a strong family and Chinese cultural background, he relied on all his communities, including his family of coworkers, to complete the death rituals for his dad.

Death seems to transcend our usual hang-ups, such as friction with family, friends or coworkers, our deadlines, our routines, our wanting to stay productive no matter what, our constant desire to meet goals, and all the busy-ness we create for ourselves on a daily basis. Death is like God pulls away the curtain and we see what’s real for a second. What’s real is our relationships, how we treat people, how we step in and help people in need, how we show up for one another, and that love is all that matters.