“Dr. Ronna! Chuay noi! Chuay noi!” (help!) A Thai nurse grabbed my arm and led me past bulletin boards plastered with pictures and descriptions of missing persons. She took me to a European man screaming and kicking in anguish. His sister and thirty employees from his destroyed seaside hotel were missing and presumed dead. “What am I going to do?” he cried. I instinctively pulled his chest to mine while he wailed and then wept. My tear-drenched blouse never dried. Over the next eight days, lasting twenty waking hours each, countless mourners—parents, spouses, siblings, children and friends—needed similar gestures of comfort as they released their suffering into the fabric of my clothes and into my being.
This was post-tsunami Thailand. On an idyllic tropical morning in this tiny area of the country, more than 5,300 lives had been swallowed and then spit out by three massive waves. Thousands more had actually vanished in the waves. The tsunami was not selective. Religion, sex, social status and age were all irrelevant. My focus was to help survivors face what the Buddha described as the inevitable realities of life: sorrow, grief, pain, lamentation and despair. For the previous eighteen months, I had been on retreat with Ajahn Ganha and Ajahn Anan in Thai forest monasteries. Each day I had practiced the reflection on impermanence taught by the Buddha:
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.
These words now took on a visceral meaning as I helped people cope with sudden, irrevocable separation from their loved ones.
After a few days in Phuket counseling traumatized inpatient survivors, I headed for the makeshift morgue in Krabi, which was actually in a wat (monastery). I walked into a large room to behold 500 bloated, rotting bodies. The ratio of dead to living was 50 to 1. Although I was wearing a surgical mask drenched in menthol ointment, the penetrating stench of death was still sickening and unavoidable.
While on retreat in the forest, I had also been practicing body contemplation and death reflection.
Death comes without warning. This body will become a corpse. This body, from the soles of the feet up, and down from the crown of the head, is a sealed bag of skin filled with unattractive things.
These too were no longer abstract reflections. Lifeless, swollen, smelly bags were unsealed, and many of the unattractive things were at my feet: excrement, urine, pus, mucus, bones and blood. It was obvious that the victims had had no chance to dress for death. The broken bags of skin were wearing bathing suits, sundresses, tank tops, shorts and other types of leisure wear. It was unlikely that anyone had said that morning, “This could be the day that I’ll die.”
Next to me a small woman thought she had identified her daughter in a photograph: a swollen body black with decay, wearing flowered shorts and a T-shirt. The face was covered by a three-digit number. (Numbered pictures of the dead were being posted every two hours.) The woman and I held hands and walked up and down the aisles of corpses in various stages of decomposition, trying to match the number in her hand with a number on a face. We saw maggots crawl over bikini-clad women and worms emerge from a toddler’s mouth. There were body parts everywhere, including heads dangling off necks. Before my eyes, everything was returning to the elements. It was a massive charnel ground meditation, exactly as the Buddha described it: “Here a leg, there an arm, there a head. . . .” Nearby, monks chanted:
Annica vata sankhara. . . . Conditions are impermanent, arising and falling away; having been born they all must cease. The stilling of all conditions is true peace.
The determined mother didn’t give up when we couldn’t find her daughter. At least another hundred festering corpses were left to peruse, and more were being unloaded off pickup trucks several times daily. Outside the morgue, crowded with mourners and volunteers, two brothers rolled on the ground bellowing in grief. They had just identified their sister, who lay uncovered nearby. Mingled with their heaving sobs came the ringing of my cellphone. The nurses needed me to care for a man in severe shock. This gentle-looking man stared off into space, stiff with grief. He kept repeating, like a mantra, “Dead bodies floating, dead bodies floating.” A pregnant woman waddled past, hand on one hip, as her energetic son cartwheeled down the hall and the mantra repeated: “Dead bodies floating, dead bodies floating.”
In the Krabi hospital lobby, survivors and family members combed through pictures of the deceased and filled out missing-person forms. They swapped suggestions on how to hasten body identification and retrieval. “Start with pictures of jewelry: fingers with wedding rings, wrists with bracelets, and necks with necklaces. Then switch to pictures of moles, scars and tattoos. No results? Look at the full-body pictures. Get dental records fast and fingerprints if possible. Use the Israeli forensic team. They know what they’re doing. Don’t go into the morgue alone.”
The embassies had a mission: encourage survivors to get out of the country and discourage family members from coming in. “Everything is under control” were their buzz words. Yet nothing was under control, or ever is. While bodies were still being collected, cadaver management procedures had not been established. It appeared that many embassies had neither internal nor external resources to deal with the enormity and the sheer horror of the disaster.
Having flown twenty-four hours, a jet-lagged Euro-Asian father had come alone to find his missing twenty-nine-year-old daughter. His attention was narrowly focused on what he called “an efficient strategy.” He pondered what to do first: Would it be sifting through bodies or looking at pictures? But despair isn’t that practical. Finally, he broke down. He begged to no one, “Please don’t let me go home without my daughter.”
The survivors’ mission was to find the dead and bring them home, to transform grief into action. The goal was to board a plane with a coffin (or coffins) in cargo. Those who couldn’t were faced with not only the grief of loss but the added grief of what some perceived as a mission failed. Those still searching offered congratulations and pats on the back to relatives and friends who had made positive identifications. But the longing, and even envy, was palpable.
The news around the morgue was that dead Westerners were being refrigerated and receiving priority identifications. The Asians were being buried in mass graves to be dug up later for DNA identification. This was devastating news for the Euro-Asian father in search of his daughter. In all probability, she was already buried. Overwhelmed with sorrow, he left alone, a broken man. At such moments I remembered Ajahn Ganha and Ajahn Anan, who I knew were sending lovingkindness. Thinking about them reminded me that surrendering to suffering actually liberates us from it.
A family at the morgue needed help. A bride had been positively identified by the Israeli forensic team. Neither the groom nor the mother of the bride wanted to see the body. Would I accompany the father of the bride? After donning masks and surgical gloves, we were led to one of eight large refrigerated containers that had recently arrived. The electrical noise was deafening. “What’s the number?” yelled a volunteer. The father screamed it twice. When the door slid open, a swirling cloud of cold air smacked into the tropical heat. It was a surreal few moments as two men leaped in and rummaged through the numbered and bagged bodies. “Chuay noi dai mai?” (Can you help us?) asked one of them. I jumped in and moved bodies so we could retrieve the right one. Two of us unloaded it onto the ground. The father unzipped the bag and stared at his frozen daughter wearing a two-piece bathing suit. Kneeling down, he shed tears on her cold corpse. Together, the grieving father and I zipped up the bag.
The following day, the groom, the parents of the bride and I returned to collect the body. Once again we hauled it out of the refrigerator, which now had even more bodies in it. The bag was opened for the last time. The mother yelled her daughter’s name louder and louder, as if she were expecting her to wake up and walk away from the nightmare. Placing lotuses on the bride’s decaying face, the mother dabbed her handkerchief all over the blackened body while humming a lullaby.
About ninety-six percent of Thais are Buddhists. Although many aren’t meditation practitioners, most have strong faith in the Buddha’s teachings. Those who couldn’t find bodies believed that the departed would receive the merit of good deeds dedicated on their behalf, with or without a body. The Thai way of grieving was quite composed and reflected a cool heart (jai yen). Mourners appeared to see death as part of life, not so much an injustice or a dreadful mistake, even when it was unexpected or swift. One Thai woman who lost her two children and husband responded to my condolences with “pen tamada, pen tamachat,” which means “this is natural, it is nature.”
The Thais have been so conditioned to keep their pain private that strong displays of emotion made them visibly uncomfortable and embarrassed. When anyone crumbled in grief outside of the morgue, some giggled out of anxiety. In the hospital while people were having nervous breakdowns, a few nurses walked away. It made me realize that my task was to be a silent witness while hearts broke.
Expressing emotions wasn’t an issue for jai rawn (hot heart) Westerners. Many felt betrayed by the waves and the experts who didn’t transmit warnings of them. Those expressing the most pain were parents who blamed themselves for not being able to protect their children from death. They confessed, “I’m a bad parent,” as if they were personally responsible. Two mothers recalled premonition dreams from the night before the tsunami: “If I had only listened, she’d still be alive.” The tsunami had shattered their identity as parents with control over their children’s lives. Questions about “bad karma” were common; what terrible things had they done to deserve this fate?
An ambassador who had come to assist his country’s citizens tried to speak with me about his personal distress. Up until this time, the only person he had ever seen dead was his mother, who had been “laid out” in her favorite church dress, her hair styled and face made up with powder and lipstick. I had great compassion for him in his horror at finding that a dead body is putrid, not pretty; but I had no time to comfort him. A loud scream interrupted us. I rushed to a woman bent over in grief with her husband at her side. An embassy staff member had just handed over their daughter’s passport, confirming her death. Their hopes of finding her in a remote hospital or wandering in an amnesiac state had been destroyed. When I took them to their room, the screaming intensified. The mother wailed on the bed while the father leaned over the balcony ready to jump. I offered to sleep in their room.
These parents identified the body the next day. A volunteer at the morgue told me that the father was screaming “get Dr. Ronna” so I could help his wife. But the embassy staff member with my number never called, and when we spoke later, she calmly said, “Everything is under control.” If we really had control, I thought, then the First Noble Truth of suffering would be disproved. Everyone would be able to command their minds to be peaceful and their bodies not to die.
My ability to keep people’s sad stories straight finally collapsed. It was time to leave. While packing I recalled that another of my teachers, Tan Achalo, told me the Buddha had said the smell of death helps keep attention focused on the fragility of life, so he recommended that monks make their robes from cloth found in charnel grounds. Not for a second did I think of taking the Buddha’s advice. I had had enough of the stench of death and threw most of my clothes away.
I went to visit Ajahn Anan. On a quiet afternoon in the forest, he offered his soothing insights:
As long as we’re living in the world, things are uncertain. It doesn’t matter what country we come from. Everyone wants happiness and a long life. But the world doesn’t accord with our wishes and desires. Every life has suffering, and everyone has their own individual karma. When we start to think about the details of our karma, suffering arises; this is not the correct view of things. If there is birth, we have to receive the karma of death. Being conscious of death is a good thing. It may arouse a sense of urgency to be more heedful and to lead a more mindful life. When we look for happiness, we have to look for the unconditioned. If there is no birth, then there is no death. This is the nature of nibbana.
This essay is dedicated to my dharma sister Quandow and her daughter and son-in-law, who were swept away in the tsunami, and to her five-year-old granddaughter, the sole survivor.—RK