A Room of Empty Chairs



Editor’s Note: This piece is one of the works in a four-part series in line with the Dapitan 2022 theme Hintayan. All works are written by The Flame‘s Letters staffers.

In all the wakes I had been to, there were always a lot of people. The elderly usually took the seats near the casket. The younger cousins would stay near the table where the food was. Mothers would talk with each other, unconsciously easing the room’s somber mood. 

Our culture has allowed funeral wakes to serve as something that brings families together. After all, it is the kind of tradition that makes the process of grieving easier to bear. Being supported by loved ones during these grievous times will always be helpful to the bereaved. 

However, on the first day of my grandfather’s wake, the chapel was empty. 

The funeral invitation had not been made yet. Since my grandfather lived in the US, his ashes were brought to the country by my aunt. With quarantine protocols set at the time, she had to be isolated for a few days when she came back. We had no choice but to wait.

When she got out, she insisted that I make the invitation, knowing that my college program involved graphic design. Given the time constraint, she suggested scouring the internet for templates I could easily edit. 

However, I had no clue where to begin. I was not inviting people to a bountiful feast to celebrate something joyous. Instead, I informed relatives of unfortunate news most of them dread to hear. I gave them details of the remaining time they left to pay respects to someone they would never hear from again.

The thought was jarring to me. After all, I had not allowed myself to let reality sink in. His ashes made it easy to fool myself into thinking he was still alive. I could pretend that he was in his house, ardently watching the newest episode of “Ang Probinsyano.” 

However, typing his name and date of death cemented the cruel reality—he was really gone.

When I finally finished the invitation drafts, I sent them all to my aunt for her to choose from. I took the opportunity to sink into the chair I sat on and beheld the empty chapel. The usual rustic wooden pews were nowhere to be found, replaced by gray cushioned chairs six feet apart. In front of them was a small pedestal holding my grandfather’s ceramic urn, surrounded by bouquets of white chrysanthemums. 

Most of our old relatives and family friends who had passed on had their wakes there as well. The countless nights of visiting made me familiar with the building’s cold rooms and gaudy lighting. Although, something was clearly different this time around—I was one of the bereaved.

I wondered how people handled it. The word condolence is usually thrown around, but I never imagined what it would feel to be on the receiving end. In those moments, I would come to think of how long until such a feeling would pass. Every day felt like I was drifting idly at sea, lost and alone as the unpredictable waters determined my fate. Some days, the waters would be calm, and I would only float with the tide. 

Other days, I find myself gasping for air as a storm comes and the unforgiving waves crash on me. Regardless of what the waters had in store, I wanted nothing more than to reach the shore.

Sadly, there was no use. Even after everything, the bitter sense of loss still held me in the form of an urn, its grip far too strong to leave room for escape. With every passing second, my mind screams in sorrow, but I am unheard. 

In the end, I am still alone.

A knock suddenly echoed throughout the empty chapel as I sat in silence. I was taken aback by the foreign sound, having been used to the whir of the air conditioning for hours. 

Before I could do anything, the door opened, and in came relatives talking loudly among themselves. Their familiar noise drowned out the thoughts weighing on my mind. Despite their voices echoing throughout the funeral home’s silent halls, it felt comforting to hear them and know they were there. Their presence warmed my heart, and I realized how much I had been craving it. 

I knew then I could never rid myself of the clutches of grief. In fact, I knew it would stay for the rest of my life. Seeing relatives made me realize that there will always be people eager to help lighten the load. After all, grief was not meant to be carried alone. It might have taken a while for people to come, but they still arrived, nonetheless. 

Perhaps acceptance was simply running a bit late too. F


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