Embrace life to cope with death

by Nicole Sangsuree Sarrett, Bangkok Post, Jan 23, 2005

Bangkok, Thailand -- Last night I came home after volunteering at Thammasat University for a few days and lay down to sleep, putting a CD in my player and listening on my headphones. I played my own CD because I thought it would bring a little comfort and familiarity. I heard it probably only a week ago, but last night, I couldn't recognise myself. It sounded brand new, and each note I played hung in the air, clear and crisp.

It was eerie, a bit frightening, but mostly interesting. It was sudden proof to myself that I am a changed person. What I recently experienced and witnessed has changed me.

I listened to the whole thing and then got scared I was going to have nightmares so I turned the light on. I heard people downstairs and realised that my family had returned from a trip up North. I came out of my room and abruptly grabbed my cousin Lily, hugging her and then my other cousin Daisy, and then a family friend, Beam. I felt like I had not seen them in months. I wished so badly I could speak Thai so I could tell them I loved them. Tears just rose in my eyes instead.

I called a friend to debrief, and I think I sounded like a robot. All of a sudden I realised I was slightly traumatised. I had been surrounded by so much action and by so many people for so many hours and suddenly I was alone in my room with some strange girl singing on my CD player.

I think that sometimes, when emergencies happen, we just function. We don't reflect, process, or even think much at all unless it is related to the task at hand. For a few days I did not think, I just functioned (with a lot of gusto) and all of a sudden I was caught off-guard and had to think. I was scared!

It was weird to feel traumatised, but it was trauma you put yourself into by choice. I did not run from waves or lose a child or break any bones. I did not have any kind of direct threat at all. But I looked into the eyes of a bruised German woman asking for help in finding her husband who had held her hand until he was swept away; I smelled the alcohol on the breath of a Swedish man flipping through pictures of bloated, unidentified bodies looking for a sign of his father's small scar; and I saw hundreds of detailed images I can only pray I will someday forget.

I can't completely desensitise myself to the photos; I wouldn't want to. But I have had to get a little used to seeing photos of dead bodies to be able to assist people with love and patience, rather than constant nausea.

I have been helping people find missing family members, organising and downloading photos online, calling embassies, searching for information on Web sites, posting information. The first night there I didn't sleep at all; I just got delirious, slowly downloading pictures of unidentified corpses.

There is no way to describe what these bodies look like. I do know that anyone who is against large tattoos would be regretting it now if they had lost someone, as tattoos are one of the only ways to identify people. I also know that if I ever got washed away by a tsunami, I wouldn't want someone to come looking for me if I was missing. I would never, ever want someone to have to see a photo of me like that. Know instead that I have passed away, and have moved on somewhere.

There are still so many bodies to retrieve, and every day the bodies get more gruesome. The water and the wicked heat create something that your mind absolutely cannot imagine. I have no idea how people can retrieve the mangled corpses and do the work they do. They are so, so amazing.

I was so happy to help people do something. Even if not one person finds or identifies their baby or wife or uncle, we are giving the families something to do. Everyone knows that sitting and waiting is the most hellish part. Searching at least gives people a sense of purpose, and I don't think it is a waste of time at all.

Happily, I met so many fabulous students and people at Thammasat. I love everyone so much and thank them for their concern. I know that in time, I'll be fine.

Please don't spend one second taking this life for granted. Praise every living moment that you have. Remember how blessed you are to be doing whatever it is you're doing and to not be suffering like this. It shouldn't take a tsunami to hit our own homes to make us realise it. And I know it sounds cheesy, but seriously, we need to tell one another we love each other more. There is no other decent way to live, in my view. Everything seems so trivial now, except our beating hearts.

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