Coping with Loss in a Foreign Culture

When I was a freshman in high school, I sat in my English class as the principal’s voice came echoing out from the speakers, informing everyone that Lara Bunce had passed away in her sleep. I didn’t know her personally, but I knew that the loss of a star athlete, beautiful girl and brilliant student would forevermore leave an empty space in our community.

For months, students held each other in the hallways, organized fundraisers and memorial soccer tournaments, brought gifts to her family and shared their fondest memories. That was just over 8 years ago now, but the recent loss of a student at Bunyawat has brought it back to light and made me take notice of the way Thai culture deals with loss.

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One of my sweet, brilliant, talented and precious former students was struck and killed by a car while riding her motorbike to school last Monday morning. (Her nickname is Ngee and she is the one next to me in the photo.)

Her Gifted Computer Science class was a select group of only 18 students, many of which attended our English Camp back in February, and I am grateful to have gotten to know them all on a much more personal level than most of my other classes. They are a fantastic and extremely close-knit group, so losing one of their own has been devastating.

Naturally, I wanted to do everything I could to comfort them, but I was struck by the realization that I am an outsider here. I’m here only temporarily and I don’t even speak their language. What can I possibly say?

I gave them my love and condolences, though it could never be enough to ease the pain of losing a best friend and classmate. It is both heartbreaking and beautiful to watch them step up and take care of each other, especially Tan (pictured above on the right), who took a deep breath, puffed his chest and told me, “someone needs to be strong.”

“Saving face” is a large part of Thai culture, meaning people always want to put their best face forward and try to avoid embarrassment or conflict. In this situation, however, it seemed to manifest in the form of fighting back tears and going through the motions of a normal day.

All Monday classes went on as scheduled. Nobody went home early. Her class stuck together and let the hours pass while they stared at Ngee’s empty desk. Over the next few days, they went to ceremonies for her in her hometown outside the city and representatives from the school attended her funeral.

But there was no candlelight vigil, no video montage of her childhood, no counseling services available to students and no article in the newspaper. Of course, those who knew Ngee are mourning her loss, myself included, but it wasn’t a huge, dramatic ordeal like it might have been in America.

This may be due to the sheer size of the school. It’s not easy to cancel classes for 5,000 students and if you did, most of them probably wouldn’t know what to do. Many parents run shops or restaurants and can’t just leave to pick up their kids. Students sometimes stay at school until 6 or 7 p.m. on normal days, just because they have nowhere else to go or because they want to hang out with their friends.

I guess there’s also something to be said for not dwelling on it so much. Buddhist teachings emphasize the importance of living in the present and accepting what you cannot change, but I can’t imagine how difficult that must actually be.

Regardless of how she’s memorialized, Ngee was an excellent student, an incredible friend and an absolute sweetheart. Like Lara Bunce, she, too, will forever leave an empty space in her community.

Computer Science students honoring their friend and “sister.”

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 And to class 6/7, if you’re reading this, I love you all from the bottom of my heart. xo

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