[CW: This article discusses death and the grieving process.]
I do a lot of terrible things purely for the sake of grieving. And I grieve a lot. I scream-sob on the floor of my room for hours, unable to stop. I make and listen to playlists of sad songs, even though I know that they only make me sadder. I indulge in online shopping sprees and buy random junk I certainly do not need and that will make me feel better only temporarily. I binge-eat and binge-drink myself into hazy stupors. I even shut myself in my room without eating, drinking or sleeping for days. Or I shut myself in my room and sleep for days with only short periods of consciousness in between.
There has to be a correct way to grieve, a way that is not so self-destructive and time-consuming. There must be a grief with which you grow instead of collapse. When you get a cold, you do not prepare yourself for death, but when you grieve, it seems your whole life comes to a quiet halt.
Sadness, of course, is not as easily treatable as a sore throat, but there must be something that soothes it like a cough drop. Perhaps they make a stronger drop for a deeper hurt. In grief, death could come and perhaps I’d barely notice the difference between life and the afterlife. My life in sadness exists half in the present and half in the past. Living in my own world takes on a whole new meaning.
To me, loss/grief (I’m still trying to decide if they are the same feeling—at this time I think they are) is like a perpetually unsettling feeling of having forgotten something and not being able to pinpoint what it is I’ve forgotten. Loss is a sinking anchor in my chest, a dive into the brain to recover what it accidentally threw away, and a return empty-handed and disappointed yet still unable to shake the feeling of terrible emptiness. Maybe this is what a hard drive feels like when you rip from its arms something it has held for a while. How it must hold an imprint of what it once had but cannot remember. How it must ache to fill that space again.
The first time I can remember seeing anyone close to me grieving was maybe a couple of years ago, when my paternal grandmother died. My father was eerily quiet that day. He didn’t cry or say a single word. He sat at the top of the stairs, staring blankly forward, and I knew he was tunneling inward because I was doing the same. I have inherited from him the bad habit of tunneling in the same direction whenever I’m sad. I’ve come to know that my mother grieves by collapsing inward and exploding out. Her grief is over before it starts but ends violently. However, because of them, I think I’ve always understood grieving as a lonely activity, a moment of hurting that only you can heal yourself from.
In my culture, when someone in your family dies, you place their photo on an altar and burn sticks of incense in their memory. On special days, you even send them fruit and gifts to the afterlife. My father used to tell me that the fruit rotting is symbolic of it being eaten in the afterlife. He joked that we will barely have enough to eat in this life, but we will feast in the next. When I was a kid, and even sometimes now, I’d imagine that’s how your family comes back to you after they leave you: walking back to earth along roads of smoke, following the smell of incense back to you.
But when my family left Vietnam, they took nothing with them. Or if they did, they lost all of it. They left photographs and their families behind. We have no altar, just bitter emptiness in a vast sea of hardship and loss. But now I’m in the habit of building altars to my grief. I’ve started collecting memorabilia on my dresser drawer: old books of Vietnamese poetry, an old letter from my mother, a pair of pants I cannot wear until the smell of my home in Vietnam completely fades off of them…
Maybe the trick to grieving is learning how to let it all go. Perhaps building altars of grief is not truly grieving. Maybe I’m not good at grieving because I let nothing go.
Once, in primary school, I won a game of tug of war, simply because I refused to let the rope go. The victory cost me the skin off my palms, left them tender, angrily pink and raw. I had felt it halfway through the match, but in my determination, I chose to hold on. My opponent had probably experienced the same thing and just let go in a way that I didn’t yet know how. But I held on for a win that, in retrospect, didn’t matter, and I hurt myself in the process.
My grief is tugging on hands that refuse to let it go, hands that hurt but only know how to clutch tighter.
Right at this moment, I cannot see how letting go will heal me, but someday I will be ready to take the pants off the top of my dresser. Someday, I will smell them one last time. Then I’ll throw them in the wash, watch the water carry the smell of home away from them and let the smell of detergent replace it. I hope it’ll feel like a weight I will no longer have to carry. I hope it’ll feel like remembering whatever it was I forgot.