Difficult conversations

DiliTimor Leste

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I think that one of the hardest things to deal with when speaking in a second language is talking about death.

I’ve faced this difficulty before. It’s a really hard topic to talk about in your first language, let alone a second (or third). There’s also so many different ways of dealing with the topic and a lot of it depends on culture and religion. It’s a linguistic, cultural and social minefield, not to mention tragic.

Today I popped home to grab something at lunchtime and saw my cleaning lady. I don’t see her that often, only if I’m home sick or if I come home during the day, but she is a lovely kind woman. We speak in Bahasa because my Tetum is still so crap (even though I have posters with Tetum words up everywhere in my room). When I had fengue/suspected dengue, she was always asking how I was and checking I was OK when she came in to get the laundry. She doesn’t clean bathrooms, but that’s her only flaw as far as I can see.

Today she had a black ribbon in her hair and apologised for not coming to our place as often as usual. I said it was no problem, and asked her if she had been unwell or if her children had been sick.

“Suamiku meninggal dua minggu yang lalu,” she said.

meninggal = to leave or depart. Or a euphamism for having died.

I had no idea whether she was saying her husband had left her two weeks ago or that her husband had died two weeks ago. I realised I didn’t know the words for condolences either in Tetum, and the only bahasa words I knew were the ones derived from Arabic for Muslims and she is Catholic. Cue speechlessness and confusion. I was going to check in Tetum… but the word ‘mate’ (dead) seems so blunt compared to the delicate ‘depart’ and I was worried I might upset her. The ‘ahi’ (electricity) goes ‘mate’ or the internet goes ‘mate’… culturally for me it seems awkward to use that to describe the death of a person, even though that’s the word in Tetum.

All I could summon up was “Are you OK? That is very difficult.”

A completely inadequate response, especially considering that a further conversation with our landlord confirmed that her husband had indeed passed away, which is terrible and upsetting because she is a lovely woman and she has young children.

Difficult doesn’t begin to describe it.

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