The first time someone close to me passed away was a foreign experience. I was 7 and it was my mother’s father.
I didn’t know whether to wear navy blue or black, so I wore both. I clung to the leg of my father’s pants as we stepped in and out of dark limos. My relatives gave out small pieces of candy and change, and I was told to spend the quarters on something sweet before we got home. We had a large meal, and the family disbanded.
When my aunt passed away 10 years later, the ritual was no longer foreign to me. I knew how to dress, where to stand, how to act. The occasion was somber, but the procedure familiar.
A year ago, I could never have described Yale’s response to death. I wouldn’t know what to say.
When it happened in September, I didn’t know how to react. I didn’t know what to say to the friends and family outside of Yale who e-mailed, called or texted, asking the same set of questions: Are you alright? How do you feel?
The vigil for Annie Le GRD ’13 felt foreign. As I looked across the field of tiny lights gathered in front of Sterling Memorial Library, I thought to myself, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
At the vigil for Andre Narcisse ’12, I knew what to expect. There would be music, there would be words expressed, there would be long candles with cups to shield them from the wind. I recognized the elements of the event. But the situation was still uncomfortable.
As Yalies, we strive to be comfortable. To combat social awkwardness, we aim to be prepared for every social situation. The liberal arts education is founded on the premise that one ought to be familiar with a variety of academic disciplines, to fit into any dinner-table discussion or debate.
But there are some situations with which we should never have to become familiar.
As when my grandfather passed away, there were many questions before my first Yale vigil: What do I wear? Do I need to bring my own candle? Ought I walk there with a group or on my own? What happens during the vigil?
When struck by tragedy of this kind, I now know how Yale will respond. I know I will receive an e-mail from the Dean, that the Chaplain’s office will be open late during the week, that there will be a vigil to honor our lost friend. The vigil will last approximately 30 minutes. Chaplain Sharon Kugler will speak. So will friends.
On Wednesday, I had all the answers. Except for the one I really wanted: how to make sense of it all.
Having some answers seems to help. Each culture has its own rituals and customs surrounding death. Roman-Catholic Hispanic-Americans have novenas, nine-day periods after a funeral in which the rosary is said in the deceased person’s name. Those of the Jewish tradition sit shiva, a seven-day period of grief and mourning.
Rituals provide ways to behave in particular situations, either for cultural or traditional reasons. They give a sense of familiarity, of normalcy and structure to that which is inherently unfamiliar and chaotic. They give us prescribed actions for times when appropriate responses are difficult to determine. They show us how to grieve, how to support the bereaved.
This year, I learned that the Yale culture is no different. Out of necessity, we have developed our own ritual in response to death.
As I looked around Berkeley South Court Wednesday night, I was troubled by how much less foreign the sight was to me. I had seen something like this before. I had done something like this before. I had felt this sinking feeling of injustice before. There was comfort in something that had become familiar. But at the same time, it was disquieting that in just six short months this is what had become.
Kristen Ng is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College.