How do you Mourn when you’re 8000 Kilometres from Home?


How do you mourn when you are so far away from the grief? This is something I’ve been asking myself over and over again since last Saturday when I got an email from my mother telling me that a friend back in Ireland had died. He had been suffering from cancer which set in and aggressively took over his body. In the end he died in his sleep.

It’s not the first time that someone I’ve known has died since I’ve been in Korea, but the way I have dealt with it each time has been different. I never knew what to do, and I still don’t know what to do.

Everyone has their own way of dealing with problems, and there is no right way or wrong way to deal with most. We can only hope that we can respond the best way that suits us. I think that of the three times I’ve had to mourn seriously in Korea, I can’t say that I’ve done it properly at all. I blame distance as much as I blame my own nature.

Richie was everyone’s friend. He was as Dunboyne as Brady’s Pub and parish church, and more. I’ve always been a closer friend with his younger brother Alan, but don’t let that take away from this, please. I really only got to know Richie when I was in my early twenties, and there were plenty of people of who knew him a lot better and a lot longer than I ever could. Back in the day, I can clearly remember wandering up to his small flat above the supermarket where I used to work, and sitting up drinking cans, and listening to him or his friends play the guitar late into the night.

Richie and his brother Alan playing in the Sugar Club last summer.

It was always a bit surreal as I could clearly remember that apartment being the storeroom when I worked in the supermarket downstairs, but fortunately enough good nights soon removed those awkward connections. Those days we’d be leaving the pub anxiously waiting for a text message from someone that simply said, “no. 5 is alive”. It almost became a motto for the weekend. Often we were not disappointed, and many a great night was had with Richie as our host extraordinaire.

The thing about Richie was he was just pure sound. And I mean proper sound. He was a decent, loving, caring, and engaging young man who loved everything about everyone and always gave you the time of day and listened to your story. If there were more people like him in the world then it would be a better place, and I say that from the perspective that there can never be enough people like Richie in the world.

I’m not sharing my own obscured and mournful perspective on Richie’s personality. If you ask anyone who knew Richie, even for a few minutes, they could not disagree with this assertion. That being said, I’m sure Richie had his enemies. We all do. But some of us choose to dwell on these things more than others. I don’t think Richie was the kind of person who did that.

When I first came to Korea, a good friend of mine’s father died. I didn’t deal with the situation very well. I dwelt on it for days but never picked up the phone and spoke with my friend. I was young and had never dealt with funerals and death well before. Usually I prefer to be on my own with my thoughts, but this wasn’t about me. Dealing with something like this can never be overly personal. I didn’t cope well, and more importantly I let my friend down when he needed me the most.

A couple of years later while in the middle of a writers’ group meeting the Grand Ole Opry in Itaewon, I got a phone call from my Da. The news wasn’t good. My grandmother who had been ill for a long time passed away. It was a long struggle, but it was something that, even if I knew how to deal with it in Korea, Ireland was the place I should be.

I got that phonecall on a Sunday night, and on Monday I went to work and told them that my grandmother had passed away and that I wanted to return to Ireland for the funeral. My hagwon at the time offered me four days off to travel, which when you consider that most Irish companies will only offer you three when a relative dies, I thought this was generous. However, if they had offered me an extra day I could have made it home.

Unfortunately, because of this lack of an extra day I couldn’t afford the flight. If I had an day extra I could have afforded it. My Da said he would pay for the flight, but I didn’t have enough of a limit on my credit card to pay for the ticket. I took the bus back home and the next day I went to work. I figured I was better off in work keeping busy than sitting at home kicking myself over that flight, and more other more distressing things.

Both times I have crawled into my own hole and kept to myself. I don’t think I’ve been overly upset and I don’t think I’ve mulled over the loss. I have just kept to myself and got on with it.

Not being in Ireland means I don’t absorb much of the grief. It’s a sad situation where I have to compare it with the idea of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It’s not the subject of conversation on everyone around me’s tongues, and I can’t attend the funeral, and I won’t see his family and I won’t see his brother Alan, my friend. I am here on my own, both physically and emotionally, and with deaths I’m used to dealing with it that way, but this time it’s different. I’m waiting for everyone else to return to normal so they’ll pop up on skype and I can talk about this. I want to mourn and I want to mourn with my friends who knew my friend as much, if not more than I did.

I can’t help that being in Korea at this time is the wrong place to be. Why am I here when my friends are going through ordeals like this but it seems to pass over me almost like a crow?

Before, I wrote about unpacking boxes and looking at it like it was a time machine, and how it can feel like the world had stopped as you moved on, but with death it’s different. This is the kind of time capsule which is always waiting to haunt you whenever you pass down the street and pass somewhere that you shared a memory.

All week an amazing tribute to Richie has been posted on Facebook: photos after photo of him with friends sharing good times as only he knew best. Every like I see I smile and cry at the same time. It’s strange how we deal with memory and mourning at the same time.

But there’s more to it than that. It’s so complicated now that I can hardly put a finger on everything that needs to be talked about. The more I think about it, the more the reality sinks home that this young man who was full of life, love, and decency is no longer with us, the more I struggle to regard anything that has no human relevance as necessary.

Regardless of everything we have, we are nothing without the people around us. They are the people who remember us and they are the people who make us great.

Thank you Richie for being who you were, and for being the best that you could always have been. You will be missed by everyone you every touched, and that number of people is large, and those who knew you best can never forget you. Never. And we will all love you always.

Now, despite my own attempts at mourning, all my thoughts and love go to Richie’s family, especially his wife Helena and daughter Tessa Rose, and his parents and brothers and sisters, and his closest friends, several of whom are good friends of mine. Be strong everyone.

Rest in Peace.

Richie Yeats 1976-2012

The Making of a Modern Disease


When my grandmother died from leukemia I had no concept of what it was she was suffering from. For that matter, I had no concept of what any cancer was, and I would still refrain from trying to explain what it is, or more importantly what it is like to suffer from it.

From what I can tell though, cancer changes you and the people around you, it is your life as much as it can take your life.

Below is an article from the New Yorker about the perceptions and reactions in the past hundred years related to cancer, and specifically cancer treatment. I think it makes a much better stab at giving an idea of what the disease actually is.

Cancer World

The making of a modern disease.

by Steven Shapin

This is how it starts. Carla wakes up one morning feeling that something is wrong. She has been having headaches, but not of the normal, take-a-pill-and-relax type. These headaches come with a sort of numbness, and now she notices some other things that aren’t as they should be. There are bruises on her back that she can’t explain; her gums have been going pale; and she’s very, very tired. She goes to her doctor, but he can’t tell her what’s wrong. Try some aspirin, he says; maybe it’s a migraine. The aspirin doesn’t help, so she finally asks for some blood tests and soon she winds up at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, where a young and talented physician gives her the preliminary diagnosis: acute lymphoblastic leukemia (A.L.L.). Carla knows nothing about lymphoblasts, or why she’s going to have to have a bone-marrow sample taken, but she knows about leukemia. It’s cancer of the blood. She’s terrified, and she may not be in a state of mind to take in the oncologist’s reassurance that A.L.L. is “often curable.”

Carla now enters not just a cancer ward but a cancer world. The ward is what the sociologist Erving Goffman once called a “total institution,” like asylums, armies, prisons, monasteries, and Oxbridge colleges—an institution that strips you of your identity and equips you with a new one. She’s given a case number, a bracelet, a hospital gown. Some of her physicians will know her name and what she was before becoming a cancer patient, and some will not. Her chemotherapy ward is an environment made sterile in order to protect her soon to be therapeutically devastated immune system from infection, so her relations with family and friends are reconfigured along with the rhythms of her days and weeks. She’s now a case.

Continue reading at newyorker.com »–›