Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Reflections on Death and the Gossip Mill

I think I actually have some buttons from my Uncle John’s death. I had no idea that his death had affected me in any way. I feel that I didn’t really know him, that it was the death of a stranger to me that nevertheless ripped my father apart. Most of my pain from that death arose from the pain I saw my father, my grandmother, my cousins experiencing. But I have buttons, buttons about respecting the privacy of the family to mourn. Buttons about giving people space. Respecting the process, the death, the loss and the grief for even just one fucking day before that gossip mill starts up again, just one fucking day, people, that’s all I ask.

This revelation was triggered by the death of one of the people in Barkerville. One of the Chinatown shop keepers, who also worked in the Chinese restaurant, died in a car accident. Her entire family work in BVille. It’s a small town. Something like this, a death, especially a sudden and unexpected death, gets around fast. It’s how a small town works and I know that. But I didn’t expect the rampant gossip that accompanied it: they were on their way to pick up their son; he was in the car; he wasn’t in the car; the husband has minor injuries; the son must feel so much guilt; the driver must be beside himself; the father and son are in Vancouver; they’re coming in tonight to pick up some things from the shop.

And the insincere comments of grief. Okay, I know some people were upset, some were really upset; but funnily enough they weren’t stopping to talk to anyone who wanted to talk about what had happened. They stuck to themselves and stayed out of sight for most of the day. But the ones who were whispering on the street – “She was so nice. I’m going to really miss her. I didn’t even know they were married.” This, verbatim, from a lady who has been working here for years. Years. I’ve been here two months and I didn’t know the deceased. I’d met her twice. She served me in the restaurant once, and sold me a fan from the shop. Yet I knew who her husband was. I wanted to ask, “Just how much are you going to miss this woman whom you obviously never got to know, who you just saw when you ate at the Duck when she took your order with a happy smile and a polite greeting, how much can you miss her? You knew nothing about her life. You don’t care, you just want to gossip about her death and her family, you stupid bitch.” But I didn’t. I walked away instead and avoided all the gaggles on the street for the rest of the day.

Maybe I’m too cynical.

But when I overheard a shop keep telling the story (a gossip version, so full of inaccuracies no less) to tourists – plain ordinary tourists who don’t care, who don’t give a shit about the family or who died, they’re just callous voyeurs in someone else’s pain – I got infuriated. Again, I wanted to shake them and scream in their fat ugly face, “How dare you? How dare you say, ‘It’s a big family here in Barkerville, when someone dies we all feel the pain’ when you aren’t even doing the bare minimum to respect the family, the actual family who are in actual pain, you don’t even respect their right to grieve privately without a bunch of curious eyes on them, eyes from people they don’t even know?” Again I held my tongue and kept walking, walking away from the idiots who I think would change their tune if it was their mother/daughter/sister/wife who had died. But maybe not.

This isn’t Michael Jackson, who the world felt they had a right to (whether they did or not); this is an everyday woman who I would bet most of the people in town didn’t know anything about, didn’t spend a moment’s thought on when she wasn’t serving them in the restaurant or the shop.

They didn’t even wait for the corpse to cool. Gossip flies in this town, to the point where the lady who runs the Wells General Store came into Barkerville to share the latest news as soon as she got it. She couldn’t even wait for people to get off work and come into the store, in case they heard it somewhere else first; no, she had to come into our working place, interrupt our work day to tell us all the newest gossip. Not professional. Not polite. Not respectful, but it makes her feel important and she doesn’t care about the people at whose expense she feels big. She just knows something we don’t know, and can’t wait to share it with us. I walked away before she could talk to me. I have another two months here. I don’t want to say something I’ll regret.

I don’t know the woman or her family. I am not in pain or upset or grieving but out of respect for those who are I feel it’s wrong to comment on her death and guess at what happened. It’s just rude to speculate on the guilt those who were involved must feel. But all day that’s what I heard and it made me furious, absolutely furious, to the point where S. had to tell me to stop ranting and just accept that small towns are vicious with their gossip.

The thing is, I’ve lived in small towns before. I grew up in a small town community and spent the last four years of my life in Rosebud which is almost as small as they get. The gossip mill was (and is) alive and well in Rosebud too. But it felt different. I thought about it for a while and I think it’s because in Rosebud the people you are gossiping about are usually your classmates, roommates, cast mates or friends. Or all of the above. Rarely in Rosebud is there someone who is only involved in one of your spheres of existence. There’s a more personal connection to everyone you’re likely to hear gossip about. I won’t deny that I’ve heard some downright nasty and cruel rumours in Rosebud. No town is immune to that kind of thing, unfortunately. But to gossip about death? Not something the town would do with such rabid ferocity. It wouldn’t have been treated like a piece of entertainment, a piece of news to liven up the day. Not like here in Barkerville. I’d like to think that in Rosebud we would instead get together and comfort each other and the bereaved; pray; go on with our lives without telling the patrons of the theatre about the death in all it’s details instead of speculating on things until four different stories of the event were circulating throughout town.

I think the difference there though is that in Rosebud people have a vested interest in each other. There the lives of the people around you touch you in some way and when you actually know the person who is suffering, you are less likely to just stand around and whisper about their loss; their loss is in a way your loss too. You at the very least feel echoes of their pain. Here in Wells and Barkerville people don’t live together. They work together. Whatever the shop keeps might say, there is a difference. Working together doesn’t make you family. If I had any doubts, the rumour mongering this weekend proved it to me. Family doesn’t gossip about the death of one of it’s own. Family doesn’t spill the news to strangers just for the thrill, or to feel important. Family bands together and weathers the emotional storm. Family holds each other up instead of ripping each other down for every last nugget of information.

When my uncle died there was a bit of both, I guess. He died in unusual circumstances which meant that strangers thought they had a right to know what had happened – in reality they couldn’t control their curiosity and for some reason that was our problem to solve in the midst of grief. It didn’t help that some of those strangers were from the press. One reporter phoned every person with our last name in the phonebook, asking the same questions which (I believe) we all declined to answer. They didn’t give up but they ended up getting their information from some satellite ‘family’ member who didn’t know what was going on…and it got printed in the paper, gossip presented as journalism.

On the other side of the coin were the people coming in quietly with support, food, hands to hold and shoulders to cry into, stories to make us remember my uncle and stories to make us laugh. Those people were the true friends, the family, the ones who maybe didn’t claim to share our pain but who respected it and let us know they were there for us. All without agenda. They didn’t come grieve with us so they could feel important or whisper about the circumstances of our grief with their curious neighbours. They came because they actually gave a damn about us, about our loss and about my uncle.

When people feel the need to share intimate details of loss with voyeurs to make themselves look and feel important, they aren’t family and never have been. The sad thing is that some of them can’t see the wrong in what they’ve done. People like that get no respect from me but bigger than that I think they’ve lost sight of something precious, something compassionate that makes us humans noble.

This whole event has done nothing to make me less jaded about human nature, that’s for sure.

Right now I feel that even if the rest of this place…it’s remote natural beauty…the easy job…the general friendliness of the people…even if it all begged for me to come back this one incident is enough to make me turn my back on this town forever and never come here to work again.

That might change as time goes on. We’ll see. But right now I think I’ll leave and not be sad to go.

1 comment:

Whispering Heart said...

im with you all the way on this one... but i doubt i would have the self controll to stop from flaming the SOBs....