According to my mother, there are two unique forms of grief that everyone touched by war understands. There’s the grief associated with the loss of human life—through bombings and brutal combat, and through the disease that runs rampant when health care and all other social services are halted. Then there’s the grief associated with the loss of a life as we once knew it: loss of country, loss of employment, loss of identity as a “prewar person,” and the subsequent need to start over. The two run along together like two dark snakes intertwined.
When my mother and father moved to the United Kingdom from Sri Lanka, amid a civil war that would drag on for 26 years, they didn’t readily display their grief. My siblings were born into the only reality we would ever know: visiting ducks at the local park, swinging on our neighbors’ swing set, and blowing out candles at birthday parties that were evidence of both assimilation and normalcy. Yet my parents’ grief would peek through at moments. The first time I ever saw my mother sob was the day she received a phone call with news that my uncle back home had lost his foot in a land-mine explosion. Years after we had moved to Canada, she learned that a famous library holding thousands of historical texts in her native Jaffna had been burned to the ground by the army. Her silent tears and the way she stared off into space, I realized then, were two more dialects of grief.