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Published: November 23rd 2014
He grabs hold of me, the father of the dead girl. He spills so much sadness from his heart, but he holds back the tears and can barely speak. So I cry for him, cry here at the funeral for his beautiful twelve year old daughter, trampled by an elephant.
Chi Phat and the surrounding region now grieve for this family. The funeral will continue for 7 days. Family and neighbors gather. They ride in, three and four people crammed on each motorcycle, carrying baskets and other things for the family. A photo of the daughter is displayed and is surrounded by offerings of fruit, sweets, and other precious items.
I never expected to be at a funeral so soon after I arrived in this little village, situated deep in the Cardamom Mountains in southern Cambodia. When I first arrived here to begin my volunteer work with the Wildlife Alliance and the community, I was told of the recent tragedy. The Wildlife Alliance has partnered with the village to help reforest the jungle, to preserve the habitat and this important corridor for elephants and other wildlife, but now this happens, throwing shudders through the population here.
I had joined an overnight trek to the jungle, and the day before our group had passed this modest rural home where people gathered for the family.
And now the next morning I'm part of the process. The father won't let go of me. His heart is short of exploding, his sad eyes are riveted on mine. I rub his back, I hug him, I do what I can to comfort this father who has lost his middle daughter. I ask him about his family, but he can barely speak, holding fingers up to communicate that he has two other daughters. I use my limited knowledge of the language to say words like "sad" and "broken-hearted", maybe to express the feelings of the father. He pulls me to the mat in front of her photograph, motions for me to light sticks of incense and put them in a holder before her photo. I pray for ease of her passing, and I pray for the healing of this family's sadness.
The half dozen men sitting nearby on the mat stare at us. Others beyond stare at us. They see our tears, they see how I'm touching and holding this man. I wonder if it is usual to express emotion at such events, or to physically touch the father as I am doing. This father needs to grieve deeply.
I find the mother and hug her also. She mutters low words to me, looking at her daughter's photograph, sadness dripping from her face. I cry some more.
An old woman pulls me to a table of food, dishes up rice noodles and vegetables and fish broth. I had eaten just 40 minutes earlier, but I accept this offering graciously and eat as much as I can. The food is delicious and plentiful. The women had started preparing it at four am that morning.
The two saffron-robed monks are chanting now under the outdoor shelter. Men and women gather and chant and pray on the mat, in front of the photo of the lost daughter.
The older sister, fifteen years old, comes to me. Her face says she is happy I am here. I tell her I am sorry and hold both her arms. Fifteen minutes later she is weeping, weeping, not from losing her sister, but because she has cut her foot. It bleeds and bleeds. My jungle guide asks me if I have anything to treat it. I pull out my packet of bandaids, antiseptic ointment, blister treatment. I see the blood flow, and she weeps incessantly. I think the 2 inch gash in her toe must need stitches. It looks deep and won't stop bleeding. She screams when I apply pressure to stop the bleeding. So I take her hand which someone was restraining, and I show her how to hold a compress. We clean it and I squeeze antiseptic ointment on her finger, and she dabs it on the wounds. She has some control now, and her sobbing ceases. I give her bandaids, which she applies carefully across the cut, and I give her the two others that I carry. I ask her if it is better. She does not answer, but tries to smile.
I think she cried from the pain of her wounded foot, and from the pain in her heart from losing her sister.
I can't stop thinking about this family as I walk on the trail back to Chi Phat. I shared the deepest pain of a parent's life. They gave me that pain, that agony, for a little while. I shake my head now and breathe deeply, breathe for the family and breathe for their loss.
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