Tis the Season for Grief and Tradition

Updated: Aug 23, 2019

December of last year was a difficult transition for our home. We started off on a high, we finished planting and weeding the garden of garlic, onion, and cabbage, tested and enjoyed the fireplace (literally roasting chestnuts on an open fire), explored the mountains on the other side of the lake via Montenegro on our anniversary and prepared our pig Bacon for St. Nicolas.

We had dinner before leaving Montenegro and the owner whom was Albanian was boasting about how healthy he was and he looked twice as old as Art's dad who had just turned 75, the owner 55. On our way home from Montenegro we were discussing his parents, their good health and the fact that they had just moved in to an apartment. We knew that eventually they would retire, his dad was still working full-time, yes at 75, and they would relocate from Michigan to our home in Albania but what we didn't expect was that the following morning we would receive a phone call. Shock doesn't even describe our household over the next 20 days our house was transformed into grand central station. His father passed in the middle of the night of a sudden and life ending heart attack that no one saw coming.

This is still gut wrenching to talk about but I do because this was my first crash course in Albanian culture and traditions. We live near his extended family and they stepped in right away to assist because we were both at loss as to what to do and how to do it. By that afternoon we had some idea of what to expect and house full of family. Now if you have been following my journey, I had only been here two months, so my language skills were very minor and I was now surrounded by family and strangers coming to pay their respects from early morning until 11 pm. Overwhelmed.

Tradition - When a family member passes, the family home is turns into grand central station.

Visitation - When guests (family, friends, strangers) arrive you greet them outside with the males first and then the females, usher them inside the family home or large reception tent where they sit in chairs at a table with a photo of the passed family member, the grieving family remains standing, the guests are offered cigarettes (still shaking my head), a shot of raki, and offered a turkish coffee. The guest then states their condolences via a scripted salute with raki and some will go immediately following this and some will stay and share stories of the passed loved one.

The Wake - The wake typically follows the visitation, this is where they stay all night with the body in the home or tent outside the home, roasted lamb meal at midnight and this is typically immediate family.

Day of Burial - Following the wake, another visitation is held in the morning at this point the family divides, the men greet the guests, the women are placed around the casket and the lines of guests are greeted then ushered through the line with the women around the casket, then the men go to the tables with raki and cigarettes and the women sit on benches and are offered some refreshments like bottled water or coffee, the priest will then come and do a short service and then the graveside service and burial.

3 Days post Burial - Then on at third day after the loved one is buried there is a visitation, another meal served to the grieving family at noon and they go back to the graveside.

Sunday post Burial - The first Sunday post burial is another reception in the morning followed by a meal at noon. This is typically immediate family and the last gathering for out of town family members before they depart.

So all in all this process should take about a week tops, but that was not the case for us, we had almost 11 days of visitation, they had a service for him in Michigan before transporting him here, and the rest of his family from the states arrived, then the wake followed by the rest of the above and an extra week of visitation post since Christmas fell in the middle of all of this. We had two large tents erected in our driveway to accommodate the massive amount of people and family. His mother and father were both the eldest of their siblings and my husband has 38 first cousins so this was a massive undertaking for just immediate family and his father was also a pillar of society and very well respected in this tiny town and so it was non-stop every day the entire time.

Side bar - It was December and part of this tradition was leaving the door open during the day until late around 11ish pm. Our only source of heat at the time was our wood burning fireplace and the temperature that had been very mild dropped literally the day we received the call from a nice mid 60s to mid 40s. We did have two heaters put in the tents as well the night of the wake because the men had to stay outside to greet the guests and the women were inside with the casket.

Other notes, there was never knock at the door with a casserole to just reheat, every meal was stressful we could be feeding 4 to 16 to 40, dress code is simply all black no exceptions during this period (some family members carry this on for a year), if you are the widow it is all black for the rest of your life by tradition, and did I mention I still could barely understand or speak the language. And last but not least when I would go to town before all of this people would just stare (I don't look, dress or speak the part of a typical Albanian woman), now I go to town and people know that belong to the Malaj family and to my husband Chop (C, often greeted with smiles and greetings. Pretty sure now I have shook hands with every adult in the Bajze community.

Our family from the states were departing on December 31 and they left me a small token of love with a live full grown turkey (somebody ask me what I missed about home, my response "my dad's smoked turkey"). My mother-in-law unpacked and made herself at home here and the extended family departed.

Work - I was working up until the day of his father's death, my contract ended December 31 and we had previously discussed not renewing before this event so at this point we were sad, tired, overwhelmed and I had officially retired.

2019...please be kind and squeeze your parents a little tighter.

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