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A Short History of Grief

The phone call I knew would come one day eventually did. When you become a migrant you Marion van Dykinvariably leave behind people you love. So the shrill of the telephone in the dark, doom-laden hours just before dawn – when your sleep is so deep that you have to swim through layers of consciousness before groping for the receiver – always sends out cold tendrils of fear that clutch at your heart.

This is our thirtieth year in Australia so of course we’ve had these calls before: the death of my husband’s mother, followed a few years later by his father; calls that always came in the depths of night when our defenses were down. Then would follow the rush to organise leave from work and flights to Cape Town. Although I was affected by these deaths and shared in my husband’s loss, to a certain extent I felt removed from the sorrow – they were not of my blood.

My father had died after a protracted illness of thirteen years when I was sixteen, then my mother after only eleven months in Australia. Their deaths after so much suffering had inured me to feel the deaths of my parent-in-law as much as I should have. I had no close relatives left in South Africa save for my step-sister Josie who was fourteen years older than me. After a visit to South Africa in 2005, I returned to Sydney determined to try to get her to come and live with us. I knew the obstacles to this ever happening was enormous. What chance did Josie have, she with her many health problems, having inherited from my father a chronic heart condition. Also, she had been born with a mental disability.

So began my three year battle with obdurate bureaucracy – in Australia and in South Africa. There were two types of visas that I could apply for on Josie’s behalf: the Aged Dependent Relative visa and the Last Remaining Relative visa. I was so sure that if the one failed, then surely the other would not. I was the one who supplemented her meagre government pension and I was her last remaining relative. Surely compassion would shown.

From my bedroom in Sydney, after returning from work at night, I completed endless forms and mailed them to various departments in South Africa. I harnessed cousins and friends in Cape Town to take Josie for countless requests for medicals; one cousin knew someone who could help Josie get her passport application approved. I arranged for police clearances, for couriers to take documents to the Australian Consulate in Pretoria, for an unabridged birth certificate from the chaotic depths of Home Affairs. I threw open my bank accounts for scrutiny; I deposited thousands of dollars into Centrelink accounts to prove that I had the wherewithal to care for my sister. Then, after two years and hundreds of emails, a cold, final notification from the Australian consulate: both visa application had been refused. Josie would be a drain on Australia’s resources.

Now I held the receiver in my hand. ‘Yes?’

‘Marion, Josie’s had a stroke. She’s at Tigerberg Hospital.’

So, not dead then. Hope bloomed. “I’m coming,’ I said.

I arrived in Cape Town late in the evening, too late to go immediately to the hospital. When I arrived the next day, I learnt Josie had died an hour earlier. I sat at her bedside, bereft, the last link to my parents now gone.

The days following were taken up with arranging her funeral. Over the years my sister had become something of an institution in Elsies River as she paced to and fro from the shops in Halt Road, stopping to speak to all and sundry in her fractured, tortuous way. On the day of the funeral I was overwhelmed by the number of people who crowded in for the service ­– almost all bringing an offering. The kitchen bulged with people and food: containers of koeksisters and coconut tarts; Rooibos tea stewing in buckets and piles of sandwiches made by stout no-nonsense ladies wearing aprons and doeks on their heads. I knew almost none of them but they all folded me in their wide warm arms, whispering words of loss and comfort. Flowers filled every available surface. And in the centre of the front room rested my sister in her coffin.

Josie was loved. This was the thought that stayed with me as I flew back to Sydney. It has been this knowledge that sustained me through my grief. What more can we ask of life but this?


Marion van Dyk is the author of Under the Skin, a powerful and compelling memoir of her youth growing up under Apartheid in South Africa.