On Thursday, I will board a plane for the first time since the stay-at-home orders went into effect. What essential travel plans do I have, you ask? My Uncle Mike’s funeral is Friday at 2 p.m. in Virginia. This is the same uncle who I had just spoken with three weeks prior, who sounded happy and healthy, who I would visit every time work travel took me to D.C., and who was looking forward to his future. This uncle was the man who lost his older sister, my mother, only two short years ago. At only 63 and a half, just six months shy of the same age we lost my mom, to the same unexpected turn of events, his sudden heart attack was and is a shock. This uncle is the 8th close family member that has died in four years.
At first, I railed against the absurdity. The day before my uncle’s death was the three-year anniversary of my dad’s death. I had stayed up late writing my dad a letter, catching him up on everything since he died. I was feeling grateful at the progress, finding that I felt closer to my dad than I had in years. Then came the call from my brother about my uncle the next morning.
Really, universe?! EIGHT loved ones in FOUR years? How can this be happening, A-G-A-I-N?! Have I not learned enough with the first seven? Are you out to get me? Do you fucking care? I guess that was the anger stage of grief.
After I hung up from my brother, before even telling my husband, I instinctually walked directly to the cemetery a few blocks from my house. I suppose I needed reminding that everyone dies. So, why not another one of my family members and why not now? Unable to digest the weight of this truth, next came the numbing disbelief.
Within an hour of hearing the news, I sank deep into taking care of everyone and everything else besides myself; I’m in a chaplain training program after all. There was my uncle’s wife, now widowed after 28 years of marriage just days before her birthday, my three cousins 17, 19, and 28 who lost their dad, my grandma who has now lost two of her three ‘children’ in two years, my uncle’s baby sister—my aunt—the only remaining sibling in her family, my brother and sister who were watching our family shrink before our eyes, and then all the calls to extended family. Then there were circumstances that made my uncle’s death complicated and difficult to navigate, like tricky family dynamics, physical distance, and a global pandemic.
I’ve gotten pretty good at attending to other people’s grief, but somehow, it was hard to roll out the same safe, nonjudgmental, sacred red carpet for my pain. I’m tired. Did I mention that he is the eighth in four years? I subconsciously reasoned that if I can make sure everyone else is alright, I can ignore the fact that I’m not. I’ll call that denial. The difference this time around was that I was aware that I was pretending that I wasn’t hurting; I could handle the fact my uncle was dead by ignoring it; I could take care of myself by denying myself. I was aware of this faulty thinking with this one, I just wasn’t ready to do anything about it yet.
As I slowly started to process with friends, I reminded myself that I know what to do when someone I love dies: lean into what Rumi said, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.” So, I canceled my plans last Monday night, spooned a generous scoop of coconut milk chocolate ice cream into my favorite Trader Joe’s brand sugar cone, and stayed up late watching A Taiwanese Tale of Two Cities, the English subtitled drama set in Taipei and San Francisco that I’ve been watching since we went to Taiwan last year—because binge watching T.V. while stuffing my face with sugar will obviously help with my grief. I’m joking here, but the thing is, it did help!
The cure for the pain is in the pain.– Rumi
The saddest thing that had happened in the show so far were break ups and close brushes with temporary yet ongoing illness. Of course, just my luck, one of the main protagonists’ beloved father dies in the second to last episode as she looks on helplessly. Nien-Nien spends the next episode wandering around lost, flying from Taipei to San Francisco only to lie in bed despondent for days, having lost her sense of purpose, refusing to eat, unsure of who she is without her dad. That’s all it took. Her fictitious grief unlocked my very real grief. A full week after I first learned of my uncle’s death, I let the tears flow for the first time.
In the final episode of the show, Nien-Nien’s friends and family in Taiwan find a stack of old “death letters” she wrote to herself over the years as she had been a sickly child and wasn’t expected to live past her teens. Fearing that she may be suicidal and alone in San Francisco, her childhood friend catches the next flight out of Taipei, despite being newly married and his wife expecting their first child. The friend cooks Nien-Nien the meal her dad made for her when she was ill, and the soup nurses her back to life. She finally admits, out loud, how much she misses her dad and she cries in the friends arms.
I felt like the show got a few things right: when we lose our person, we’re lost, life feels pointless, we’re not even sure who we are anymore, the void our loved one left threatens to swallow us whole, and sometimes being swallowed whole is preferable to feeling all that we’re feeling. The show also showed how life goes on for everyone else, even though our world is unrecognizable. Yet, when someone stops long enough to recognize our pain, it validates it and helps us to take a step towards the possibility of life without our person in it.
I’m going to my uncle’s funeral because I need to show up for me and our family and look and be looked upon. Like David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief says, “grief must be witnessed”. That witnessing lets us know that we’re not crazy and we’re not alone. Kessler says that grief is what’s going on in the inside of us, mourning is something we do on the outside. While grief will always be a lonely, solitary road that we must walk as individuals, mourning need not be. That’s why funerals are important and why the COVID-induced virtual option just wouldn’t do. But what about after that? Somehow, unless you’re blessed with religious heritage with prescribed mourning rituals like the Jewish practice of sitting shiva, we in the west have forgotten how to mourn. Maybe that’s why it’s been so easy for some to criticize the Black Lives Matter protests—they forgot what it feels like to hurt on a collective level.
In his excellent book, Kessler tells the story of what a Northern Indigenous tribe in Australia does to tangibly show that someone’s death matters. The night someone dies, everyone in the village moves a piece of furniture or something else into their yard. The next day, when the bereaved family wakes up and looks outside, they see that everything has changed since their loved one died—not just for them but for everyone. What a beautiful way to make loss visible—to witness and mirror grief. That’s why so many have been compelled to make beautiful public art to show that we’ll never be the same after the pandemic and certainly not after George Floyd.
Today we mourn publicly on social media hoping that someone else who has been through it will see us and show us that we’re not alone. We write long tributes; we tell the story of what happened; we post pictures on death anniversaries; we join grief pages (David Kessler has an excellent one); we change our profile picture in solidarity with larger movements. And, this is fine and good, because it scratches the itch to do something.
The best I’ve got right now is to be there, because there’s nothing to be done. My uncle is dead. Nothing I do will change that.
One of the best lessons I’ve learned from six months of clinical pastoral education is that a good question, maybe even one of the best questions to ask anyone who is grieving is “what is it like for you?”
Since I first found out about my uncle two weeks ago, this is a bit of what it has been like for me.