Wednesday, October 12, 2022

On Grief (and somewhat about fabric)



Sometime this past May was the third anniversary of the day I lost my Dad and I echo what so many bereaved people have said years, even decades, after their own losses: it felt like it'd happened yesterday. I am in a different place now, though. My family keeps me busy and distracted. My home is full. My calendar is packed. Nobody looking at our household would guess that I am bereaved. Parenthood is an excellent foil that way. But I have lost a father, and an aunt and an entire country. 

Initially, it was hard to write about it, or even think about it. I didn't have the vocabulary to describe what it was like to live each day without my Dad in it. Even emotions were elusive, because of the shock and the brain fog. The thing that was most tangible to me at the time was the detachment - it was like looking at myself through an outsider's eyes, observing my fumbling attempts to make sense of something I felt woefully unprepared for. In those early days, I would say of myself, "I've lost my mind" and "I can't feel anything". I wished there were an instruction manual, so I trawled the internet for forums and articles and bought books from Amazon but they offered only other people's stories, in which it wasn't their dad who died, but their mother, or their child, or their spouse. Or if it was their dad, it was because of cancer, or Alzheimer's. Nobody's dad had had a heart attack while sitting in his chair after getting out of bed in the wee hours of an ordinary day just beginning, minutes after calling the ambulance himself because he "didn't feel so good".

I wanted someone to tell me what to do in my exact situation, with my exact mother living continents away from either of her children while my exact aunt weathered her exact debilitating illness and my exact family watched. I wanted to know what to do in the next minute, hour, day, week, I wanted to know how the ensuing years would be like, if they would be disastrous or if we would recover, and if my mother would live beyond the tragedy or if I'd somehow lose her, too. It was my fear talking, and I listened because there were no other voices. When my aunt died early the next year, I did it all over again: the long solo plane ride to Singapore, the wake and memorial services, the cremation, and waving goodbye to Mum at the airport, leaving behind all the wreckage, old and new. 

The early months were heavy, volatile and lonely. Not lonely in the way my mother - and other widowers - inexplicably had become, but adrift, mute and invisible. That they coincided with the climax of the pandemic did not help. Traveling to Singapore to see my family had always been something carefully orchestrated and saved for, never done spontaneously or casually (I'd always envied people who had the luxury to hop in their car and drive an hour away to bring their mom groceries, for instance). With the world in lockdown, I didn't know when I could see Mum again, and that loss of freedom to anticipate and plan was crippling, especially when I so strongly believed that our being together would be the one thing that might heal us. 

There is a common saying that when we lose something - or someone - we realize how very little control we'd had in our lives in the first place. The process of losing itself undoes us, but the paralysis in the aftermath underscores our real, everyday lack of agency. After a time of being dragged in its undertow, it hit me that grief might just about drown me if I didn't start swimming. So I walked into a clinic and found a therapist, who introduced the idea of being intentional. I learned to call the pain My Grief - as personal and unique as the two relationships I'd lost - and consciously leaned in. I began to allow myself to be ambushed by emotions, and while I couldn't dictate their timing or intensity, I got to choose people, environments, tasks and experiences which felt safe for witnessing and processing those ambushes. Even the act of staying instead of running was willful - and empowering.

I joined a grief support group and shamelessly reached out to even more people who had themselves lost others. I asked them to tell me their stories, because I felt it was important to destigmatize and de-isolate loss. I decided that education was strength and listened to podcasts and sermons and attended seminars and devoured books. I saved quotes because I recognized the gift in other people's wisdom. I reminded myself to not compare losses so that I would fully honor my own, and to not judge coping so that others could honor theirs. I journaled as an act of self-respect because my experience was worth recording and revisiting, and because I anticipated a future in which I would look back and find the past valuable both in itself and in its evidence of the progress I'd made. And I collected words and built a vocabulary for grief and loss because it enabled me to take up space: to be seen and heard, and thus understood. And I left my grief books lying around the house, stacked among the YA novels and magazines and prayerbooks and recipes and glossy coffee table hardbacks, to demonstrate to my girls that this is normal, is integrated into who I am and what I like, that we could talk about this, both the feeling and the unfeeling, the jarring and the gentle, the horror and the humor.

Three years and multiple journals later, I feel like I've settled into a sort of grief groove. I have stretches of days and weeks in which I live in the fullness of happiness, enjoying my children, husband and friends and the excitement of participating in school activities that were denied us in the pandemic years. Then: a week of being fragile because it's Father's Day, or Dad's birthday, or some other significant milestone for whom the person-of-honor is now MIA. Initially, it was subconscious - I only realized in hindsight the reason for my having been irritable, or anxious; now I more explicitly make the connection, and am able to be gentler with myself. Then the day passes, I fall back into the rhythm of life moving forward and and I forget once more that I'm not quite whole. 

The holidays are hard in an additional way - aside from the implications and expectations for these to be rapturous reunions of intact families, I feel especially bereft being so far away from my own. Last Christmas, I attended an Empty Chair service with two friends who'd lost close family members, one years before I had, and the other just weeks prior. It was a simple, concise thing: some hymns reverently sung, a somber homily about sadness and hope, tea lights spread across the front of the stage to be lit in memory of our lost ones. I touched the fire stick to one of the candles, then realized with a start that I should probably light two; suddenly my heart squeezed and my brain hollered What The Heck Is This and How Do You Share Tears Between Multiple Missing People. And just as abruptly, I recognized the pain of the other congregants around me. It was easy to guess which losses were recent, because they'd come as a clan of seven, ten, fifteen people, their arms wrapped desperately around each other, heads bowed and chests caved, noiselessly shaking. It was a visceral reminder of how recently I'd stood in their shoes. It was excruciating to watch. 

I want to share some things I've learned about grief, and about loss, and who I'm becoming as a result of both. It isn't linear, and I'm going to jump between the past and the present and the future in no discernible order, because that's the path grief takes through your brain and heart. Interestingly (to me, at any rate), time became a medium in which to travel in my grief. In the beginning, it was a struggle to remain in the present because the present was pain. Furthermore, the present shared a temporal boundary with the future, and the future wasn't something with which I had the courage to flirt. On the other hand, the past was safe, precisely because it was twice removed, plus it had already happened, and nothing in it could blindside me the way the present had. So for months after the funerals, it was only the memories from my childhood, that very distant past, which would come to me, luminous and joyful and comforting. 

One of the first lessons was that Dad's death reacquainted me with an older, unhealed version of myself. It began as a dim sense that something about losing my father felt familiar. Later, I understood that other profound events earlier in my life had stolen pieces of me, like a soul amputation: a terminated romantic relationship, a faith detour, a career decision derailed and - perhaps the most profound of all -  immigrating to the US. I'd always thought of that last one as leaving Singapore; I'd never realized then that I was also losing my country. I dealt with those early losses with the insight and life experience I'd had at the time, but here was now a new precipitating event powerful enough to bring everything once again to the surface. I didn't have the words, only the bewildering pain of feeling inexplicably alone even while surrounded by my new family here in Minnesota. By chance (or maybe it was a grief forum recommendation; I misremember!), I purchased this book. Cheered by the promise of methodical instruction (it was called a handbook after all) I attacked the contents with soaring anticipation. A few chapters in, readers were instructed to "find a grief partner" with whom to complete the exercises and if we could not, we should examine ourselves for a more sinister motive behind our difficulty in locating one (unhealthily isolating ourselves or being unnecessarily mistrustful of other people were two possible options subtly hinted at, for instance). I was deeply annoyed, but kept going. Further in, we were told to find a piece of paper with specific dimensions to perform a writing task. At this point, I hurled the book away. 

I suspect that once the shock had worn off and I was able to access my emotions, anger had probably been my dominant reaction to my dad's death. It protected me, surely, from the hurt underneath, but it was also my mind's way of processing the unfairness of it all: a world in which people still have fathers, in particular people whose fathers were older or sicker than mine and had the audacity to still be alive, people whose fathers lived just down the road and - the real kicker - people who were mean to their fathers and still got to access them whenever they wanted (or not). And now books reducing that injustice to something so stupid; I did not appreciate the insinuation that grief work would be successful only if executed on 8.5" x 11" stationery. 

Weeks later, when my ire had cooled, I revisited the book and completed that task: a timeline of losses from earliest memory to present day. I dissected it over many weeks in therapy sessions and to date, it has been one of the most powerful bits of grief work I've ever done. And the authors were right  - although not about the size of the sheet of paper  - it was imperative to find a grief partner to process those losses. As the grief expert David Kessler so rightly said, "our grief must be witnessed". We cannot accomplish grief work if we are the only ones screaming into the void. Echoes do not count. 

The second thing I learned is that when people talk about closure, they really mean something else. Catharsis, maybe, or completion. But certainly not an ending (because why, after having just experienced one ending through death, would anyone really be looking for another?) This past spring, I accompanied a friend to a grief seminar. The speaker, a retired funeral director turned bereavement counselor, proposed that the closure people so desperately seek is really an opening to value, meaning, purpose, strength and hope. I've found this to be true: only after naming and deconstructing all those losses from earlier in my life was I able to begin to grieve the loss of my father - in the full sense of the word, with the uncompromised capacity for gratitude as well as longing. Healing is evasive that way - and unfinished business relentlessly keeps score. David Kessler explains it this way: what we repress pursues us, but what we face transforms us.

Which brings us to that notorious tension of love and pain in grief, wherein the ultimate destination of a grief journey is reaching a place where we remember our loved ones with more love than pain (and not with all love and no pain). I learned that it is possible for joy and levity to coexist with hurt and deep sorrow, with the added surprise bonus of discovering that I am capable of withstanding tremendous emotional pain. Society does not handle this dichotomy well, unfortunately; the message we get is that it isn't OK or even possible to host both at the same time without feeling crazy. For that matter, society doesn't teach us how to lose things well, either - only how to attain and continue to amass them (admittedly some cultures do this better than others; the Western culture seems to fall among the latter). I've learned that while happiness is the mere absence of sadness, joy isn't, is deeper, unconditional, layered. Dad lived with the great sadness of his childhood, his poverty post-war, and his difficult relationship with his parents while being an abundantly generous, protective, joyfully funny man, the benefits of which spilled over to our nuclear and extended family in ever-extending circles. When I lost him, I believed I would never again feel his positive influence, or that he would never again teach me anything, yet he continues to be and do so, restored by our collective memories of the person he was, the choices he made, the way he loved.

I see now that there are two experiences of losing a person. One is the event of the actual losing. This is where trauma most easily resides, particularly if the death had been violent or sudden or premature. Here is also where the shock and anger live, fueling fruitless quests for justice and reason and control, our senses hyper-attuned to an onslaught of details we cannot unsee or unhear. It matters little if we lose our person abruptly in a single wrenching event or pilfered slowly over months and years - the actual moment of loss is the same: one second they're still here, and the next, they're  - inexplicably - not. Then, assaulted by those images and sensations, we relive and replay that transition, against our will and better judgement as we wish for a million different endings. 

The other is the experience of being permanently without, that vague, aching sense of having been bruised on the inside as our brains are gradually rewired to comprehending an existence with something profoundly missing. Here the details are intermittent but cruelly familiar, pain accents that bring nuance to concepts of Forever and Never and Other. Here, I think, is the place of true sadness - it cloaks like a blanket, heavy and soft, sometimes stifling, other times a comfort to lean into. It is quiet but not sterile; over time, good things can grow here: respect, peace, compassion, clarity, resilience, joy, hope. Here is where we learn to walk again, to trust, to cherish, to create. Here is also often where we find each anew - the sister we snapped at over the flowers for the casket, the cousin who yelled at her toddler, unaware that we'd just lost the heartbeat on our ultrasound, the friend whose mom died fifteen years earlier when all we could do was offer Hallmark cliches and talk too much because how could we have known then what it was like? 

I've learned that these two aspects of grief are not always sequential. They could happen simultaneously, or one after the other, or are stacked atop each other, or toggle, or multiply and run amok and circle back in loops, and invite monsters to the circus. But the madness always abates, and each time I recognize more of myself, and I'm different, and I'm okay. Where I am now feels like I'm no longer ragged from the experience of abruptly losing my Dad; I revisit it occasionally when triggered, but mostly I'm living in the After, the place of tempered yearning, hearing the echoes of his life, incrementally understanding that there isn't a reverse button, is reality now.

Grief has taught me many things about family. One which I learned very early on was that even in that one death, we all lose different people. When Dad died, my mother lost her husband and best friend. My brother and I both lost our fathers, but they were different men, because we were different children to him. Other people in our wider family lost grandfathers, uncles, brothers, brothers-in-law, granduncles, fathers-in-law and surrogate fathers, mentors, teachers. Laura was my aunt, music teacher and craft co-conspirator, but she was also someone else's mom, wife, grandma. By one death, multiple roles suddenly disappeared from our family network. Someone likened this to a crib mobile, in which one hanging item falls off, and throws the entire thing completely off-balance. I've seen the effects of this in our Singapore family, certainly: over time, everyone has adapted to compensate in some way for what's now gone. Mum is now both my parents to my brother Sean and me and we in turn both listen to Mum's daily accounts and hold her fears because it's what Dad did. Mum and Sean are now the gatekeepers of our shared family history and the connection to my culture and childhood. My uncle is now the custodian of all of Auntie Laura's Menagerie WIPs - and the stories behind them. And we all say to each other, "Your Dad would have liked this," or "Auntie Laura would have been so proud," because we instinctively want that mobile to keep spinning.

I continue to be bemused by these and other metaphors, incidentally: grief is a mobile, a ball in a box, a Venn diagram, a wall of bricks; it is waves, is capacity, is a transition (complete with comfort objects). Here's the most recent I'd found: grief is like a trio of bags. Initially, it is a burlap sack, enormous and unwieldy, filled shapeless and so overwhelmingly weighted that it just sits where it can't be moved. Later, it's a tote bag with handles, portable enough to cart around for a while before it has to be set down. Eventually, grief is a sling purse -  still roomy enough to stash a brick inside if you need to whack someone upside the head, but mostly you fill it with just the necessities, hang it about your person, and sometimes it even feels natural enough that you don't realize it's there. That metaphor resonated with me as a bagmaking person, obviously, but also now that it's been long enough after losing Dad that I am beginning to recognize distinct versions of myself emerging along this journey. Let me explain with this meandering detour of a story.

Did I tell you that I went to Singapore this spring? It was the first trip back since Auntie Laura's funeral two years ago and I hadn't seen friends or family since before the pandemic began. Covid restrictions made international travel a nightmare but it was healing both in ways I expected and in others which surprised me. Mum and I took some time to help my uncle sort the contents of Auntie Laura's craft room. We picked out fabrics and ric-racs and other bits of haberdashery and tossed out bags and boxes of stuff she'd hoarded not only from her own artistic pursuits but also those of her sister who'd passed some years before. It made hardly a dent, but it was a start; before this, the room hadn't been touched. And no wonder - the bereaved don't know what to do with the belongings left behind, do we? On the one hand, we want them to stay as they are because they're visible reminders that our loved ones took up space in the world. On the other, we desperately want them to be put to meaningful use; letting them languish untouched, their intended purposes forgotten, is to lose our loved ones - the ones to whom they were once so valuable - all over again. 

Dad's stuff - his craft supplies and archery equipment and partially-refurbished fishing reels and rods - are still mostly as they were. Mum's packed them up and stashed them away to organize things a little more, and has found even deserving homes for a couple of things, but we're waiting for the day when the three of us - my brother, Mum and I - are in the same country at the same time. Until then, they'll stay in Mum's house, where we can see them and tell stories about them. 

Mum's house.

The family home is simply Grandma's house now, although just the other day when someone in Minnesota asked me if my family were here with me in the US, I started to say No my parents are in Singapore, before I caught myself and clarified that it was just Mum now. Relabeling what has always been feels like salt in a wound, but that's part of grief work, too.

One of the hardest concepts about grief that I'd struggled to find words for was access. It was a concept that came early and vividly to me after Dad's death: I no longer have access to him. That lucid realization was accompanied by tangible panic, and I became obsessed with understanding its implications. For months, I had dreams of Dad behind a glass wall, or catching glimpses of him through a partition, and watching him at a party I wasn't invited to. Convinced they were clues of some kind (although to what, I didn't know), I sketched them all in my journals, determined to save these subconscious conjurings because they were a means, albeit fictional, to meeting him again. After all, losing access to Dad also meant that all my memories would only ever be in the rear-view mirror - there would be no new escapades or photos or stories ever, save the ones some stranger or extended family member might unearth and gift to me. I became obsessed with Other People's Stories and Other People's Media (and had a moment of transcendent vengeance when I discovered old teacher photos of his in an internet archive) - evidence of my Dad's life captured in time, separate but concurrent with mine. I didn't care that it was but a static past life. It would be new to me, and that would have to count. Videos, though: moving, speaking, as if he were still here, sounding just like that, his face crinkling and uncrinkling, changing the molecules of the air with his arms, reflecting the light, taking up real, three-dimensional space, interacting with the world and all its physical laws - I can't bring myself to watch them. Not yet. That part of me still aches.

I'd remembered telling God I was sad that Dad could never again teach me things. I'd always loved learning stuff from him, partly because he was good at instruction, partly because it was comforting to know there were people smarter than I who were interested in helping me, and partly because I knew he loved sharing himself. In the summer of 2021, just before Dad's birthday, I found myself in a grief funk - the kids, being now Grown Up HighSchoolers, were trying to express their independence in uh, let us say, creative ways, and it felt like premature empty nest syndrome plus dead parent abandonment plus Goodness Gracious Was This What It Was Like For Mum And Dad When My Brother And I Both Left Singapore And Emigrated To Foreign Countries? Then a memory came to me of a phone conversation with Dad after I'd arrived in the US seventeen years ago. He'd told me how he'd wept and missed us and for a good while couldn't bring himself to take the same walking routes on which he'd pushed Emily in her stroller. With that memory came this understanding: this is how my Dad did his grief work - he allowed himself to fully feel, he let someone else witness his grief, and - as time provided the evidence - he recovered and moved forward.

Then this spring, as I contemplated my trip to Singapore after the pandemic, simultaneously desperate to see my family and dreading the return to a home that was strange and broken, another memory came to me. Dad, just a few years earlier, had had an accident at the beach in Singapore that landed him in the hospital. It had been traumatic for him and Mum, who'd watched it happen, but some months later, he called me on the phone to say they'd gone back to the place where it'd happened, because he still loved the beach and he didn't want to let that negative incident stop him from returning to enjoy it. Suddenly, the dread dissipated. It was as if Dad was saying "Go. Go back to where it was once difficult because it won't always be. Remember the ways in which it is also good."

My Dad, as it turns out, is still teaching me. And God, it turns out, has never stopped listening.

Remember that bag metaphor? When I got home from Singapore, I was the sling purse. I'm able to carry it with me now! I smugly told my grief support group. And I explained it thus: the people I'd found in Singapore when I got off the plane in March were not the same ones I'd left behind at Auntie Laura's funeral before the pandemic, still reeling from losing Dad and who knew how many other relatives just months before. In the time since, there had been searching and finding, laughter and levity and reinventions and all kinds of deep bonds and authentic connections. My family had begun healing while I'd been continents away doing my own grief work. Here was evidence of forward momentum. Two years later, we all were softer. Truer. Lighter.

A month later, I sat in my car in a parking lot, ugly-crying as I texted a friend in Singapore on the eve of the anniversary of Dad's death. Because of the time zones, it wasn't really the Sad Day itself in the US, although it was the Sad Day in Singapore. This had always annoyed me - not knowing which day to officially observe - but that day, three years after the fact, I had a meltdown, because whose death anniversary falls on two separate dates? And why was I so far away that a single moment straddled two whole days and I had to be on a plane for more than 24 hours just to get home to say I'm sorry I wasn't there when it happened? I'm still the bloody burlap sack, I declared in mounting despair to nobody in particular; one bloody anniversary and I've relapsed and undone all the work of the past three years. 

And then it passed. As grief does, those notorious waves leeching away to leave behind that stillness where there are no words, only exhaustion.

Anniversaries are hard. Harder even than the holidays and birthdays and father's days and other Important Days. I've learned that, too. Everyone says "I can't believe it's been 3 years." Let me unpack that. I can't believe I've not heard his voice for 3 years. I can't believe I've cooked meals and done laundry and taken planes across the globe and gone to concerts and swim meets and watched the youngest child overtake the oldest in a massive growth spurt and we took down our two ancient evergreens and planted native gardens in their place and I learned to crochet and sewed and wore masks and survived a preposterous global pandemic and had the audacity to move forward with my life and it's been over a thousand days that Dad hasn't been with Mum, paying the bills, running errands at the supermarket and fixing all the big and small ways a house can fall apart, and over a thousand nights on which she's slept in a silent room, wearing out just one side of their bed. That's what I mean when I say Wow It's Been 3 Years. Are we surprised, as if we blinked and a thousand days had passed? No, we've felt every minute of every one of those thousand days, because that's how profoundly our lives and families and relationships and personalities have been derailed. We mean instead that we can't believe we hadn't given up and said What's The Point and believed it. We mean that we can't believe we've been getting out of bed for three years, each day learning anew some new strategy to live without being able to access that person who, up till that day, had always been there.

Here's something else I've learned: to reframe these Important Days so they don't wreck me. On the death anniversaries, I let myself embrace all the sorrow and disappointment that my Dad and Aunt aren't here to do life with. It feels authentic to tap into that side of grief, because anniversaries mark the day the world lost these two irreplaceable people. The other days, however, are occasions of joy. My Dad's birthday was the day the world was enriched by his entering it. My own birthday was the day he became a father - my father - and how much happier were both our lives for it. So on his birthday this year, I baked softball-themed sugar cookies and foisted them upon the hapless members of my grief support group (ha!), then sat in a movie theater by myself and watched dinosaurs destroy the world. And on my birthday, our family of five got on a plane and hiked the Swiss Alps, and I made myself stay in the moment and believe that the world was glorious and breathtaking and good.

And finally, I learned to learn. In the literature of grief and loss, we're often encouraged to learn a new skill because it's supposed to help in healing us. I'm sure there is a neurological reason for this, but I think of it this way: learning is adding and gaining, and gaining is the opposite of losing. Plus I can appreciate how comforting it feel be to be guided from a place of having nothing to one of having more. I learned to crochet two years ago, and it was exhilarating. It gave me something to do with my fidgety-winter hands and an excuse to shop for a brand new stash of crafting materials. I enjoyed the steady rigor of the process and the security of working toward a known outcome: the washcloth on Pinterest, the basket in the Youtube video, even just the row of complex foundational stitches (the promised upgrade from the usual Chain One Zillion). I also learned about grief, not only from the usual educational sources but also from simply not avoiding it. In those first two years, it was all I did. For a long time, I was depleted, and to a small yet substantial  extent, learning countered it. 

And now we come to the bit about fabric. I have two stories to tell. But first, a preface: there comes a moment, even in the midst of grief, when you remember that once upon a time, you felt the deep pleasure of intentional creativity. While there were some hints of this throughout the past three years - giraffes, that airplane bag, my whole crochet kick and discovering I could read a crochet pattern (whoo!), those were me still in a funk with one foot planted in the familiar, tentatively dabbling and trying to find the person I used to be. Being able to create, though - from nothing more than inspiration and harebrained idea - has to come from a place of fullness and abundance and strength. It came so easily to me when I was a young mother with small children, because little children are newness, boundless life and wonder personified.

So one day, sometime this spring, I decided to sew again. Not because someone needed a gift by a deadline, or someone else needed a dress for a function, or even to finish a WIP that'd been giving me long-term guilt vibes. It was a project I wanted to work on purely for the intentional and unadulterated pleasure of it. So I walked into a JoAnn store, looking for best, prettiest fabric available, because I esteemed this project so highly that the fabrics in my stash were not good enough and I didn't want to Make Do. It was the strangest feeling, like waking up after a long, restful sleep and realizing the jet lag had worn off, and wandering into the kitchen and feeling an actual appetite for real food that I looked forward to eating. I knew something had switched inside me because I was actually hoping the staff at the cutting counter would ask me what I was making, so I could say, "Wallets!" and put all the excitement of that word in my answer and actually mean it. 

Because it'd been a while since I'd made them (and Mother's Day was around the corner), I warmed up first with that key pouch for Mum. And then it was all systems go, the sewing room floor a riot of accent fabric pairings and the innards of my hardware box exploded upon it all. When I unrolled the 600 denier nylon packcloth - the foundation material of all my wallets - I realized that I'd bought it 30 years ago while I was living in Mum and Dad's house, unmarried, in college, somehow still a child, innocent yet. It was a curious thing: same piece of fabric, same girl, same project, separated by decades, oceans and all these life experiences.


I finished the wallets last month. This was a project I took my time with, so that I could savor it. I didn't try to squeeze it in between errands and chores and I didn't set goals and deadlines. I sewed when it felt right, or when the mood hit, and I let it sit on my sewing table for weeks sometimes while I attended those aforementioned school concerts, swim meets and family gatherings. I detoured midway and recut some pieces so I could add a new zippered pocket and change a design. I took stock of my supplies, did some research online and bought more grosgrain binding so I'd have enough for what I was making and more in the future. It felt good to plan for the future. And I let myself feel good about feeling good about the future. That, too, was part of the savoring.

My sewing is helping my grief. Even when I'd left my country and my people for this new and wonderful life, it kept me connected to Mum, Auntie Laura, Dad, my grandmother, my friend Jen. I love that there are so many angles to it: the wallets and bags that Dad and I both love, the softies that blessed me with so many precious memories of Auntie Laura in her later years, the drafting that she and my grandmother passed down to me, and the ongoing garment-making that I still occasionally do in the (virtual) company of my mother and Jen. 

Here's the second story. My dad was cremated. Almost everyone is in Singapore, to economize on space. Because his death had been so unexpected, our family had been unable to more thoughtfully plan for how to house his remains before I had to board a plane to return to the US. I wrapped a portion in paper towels, and transported that home in an old tea tin. For weeks after, that tea tin sat in my purse and went wherever I did. This had always been a temporary arrangement, until I'd sufficiently overcome the inertia to do better - maybe choose a less improvisational receptacle, or ceremoniously bury it among the roots of a tree in our yard. Something proper and traditional, I imagined; something that might even feel like closure, whatever that meant. One day, many months later, paralyzed in a mess of tears on the floor, the answer became clear. I sat on my sewing room floor and surveyed my stash, as I'd done on countless occasions at the start of a new project. This time, I wasn't choosing to impress or to inspire - I was looking for something that felt like home. When I'd made my selection, I opened the tea tin, tossed out the paper towels, and rewrapped my father's remains in the fabrics which told our story: Singaporean batik and brocade for the Peranakan and Chinese halves of our family culture, leather and canvas to celebrate his craftmanship, ripstop nylon and that aforementioned packcloth for the bagmaking projects we both enjoy, and fleece for the place in which I now live and continue his memory and the skills he'd taught me. 


This year has felt like movement. If not a comfortable hike with the occasional pauses for rose-smelling, at least more steps overall forward than back. And growth, too. My vocabulary, for instance, now contains phrases such as my grief, grief work, holding space, emotional vs. historical memories, wholeness, acceptance, triggers, escape plan, fragility, witness, honoring, missing. The missing is hardest. It's taken me a long time to be able to say those words: I miss. I'm grateful there are people to whom I can say, "I miss my Dad" and who respond, "We understand," but even more for those few who loved him and who can reply, "Me, too." And there are other words, too - other people's words, full of wisdom and hope. I still collect them in my journal, on my Pinterest board, scribbled in the margins of my grief support workbook. Just this month I listened to Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert talk about losing their own dads when they were just boys. Colbert's metaphor about rooms and doors without knobs absolutely slew me. I filled pages in my journal with his words alone.

I am facilitating a new grief support group at our church this fall. I am excited and terrified. The former because I am hopeful - that it will help others feel heard and seen, that they may ultimately cross over to the other side of grief. The latter because I still have those days when I doubt if I've ever left this side. 

David Kessler, in his most recent book, talks about a sixth stage of grief, meaning. It alludes to  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's massively-misunderstood five stages of grief (they were meant in the context of terminally ill patients facing their imminent death, not bereaved survivors coping with the loss of loved ones, as many people assume.) Regardless of what different mental health sources say about those five stages, they mostly agree that simply accepting the death of a loved one is not the end of a grief journey. There has to be reinvention, rebirth, and some kind of renewal after, in which the ones bereft find momentum again, and continue forward in fullness of life. Kessler calls it finding meaning - not in the death, which will always feel contrary to the natural order of things, but in the life that must continue after it. Certainly I've sensed it in my own slow recovery, this tentative reawakening of creativity and my growing gratitude for the rich relationships around me. Perhaps it's already evolving as I keep vibrant and alive the memory of my dad and aunt, along with their wisdom and all they have taught me and my girls. And I wonder if I might not discover it anew as I help others by holding space with them for their pain and eventual peace. 

In the meanwhile, I want to be more than my grief. And I want to be unafraid of the days that come out of nowhere and lay waste to my composure. I know now that the emotional repercussion of these ambushes is huge precisely because my love for my dad and my aunt is. And I know their loss isn't something to get over or leave behind but to integrate into who I am becoming, so I can carry the best parts of them with me. And while I'm not quite there yet, I long to miss them with all that is already healed and all that still hurts, and say it, aloud and unashamed. I miss my Aunt. I miss my country. I miss that younger LiEr, untouched by loss. 

And I miss - oh, how I miss - my Dad.
















 










 





7 comments:

  1. I understand so very much.... there is a void left by my parents that nothing can fill. I am so sorry for your loss.

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  2. Thank you for sharing. I haven't been able to read the whole article, as I was overwhelmed by my own grief of losing my mother through death and my father through abandonment. I plan on coming back and absorbing what you have said in tiny pieces, and will be looking for some of those books (in particular, the handbook) that you mentioned.

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  3. Oh friend, beautifully written and worth waiting for. Much love. Your healing grows my healing.

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  4. Thank you so much for writing this. It has been beautiful to read.

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  5. Beautiful and powerfully written. It seems trite to say that I'm sorry for your loss. I'm happy that you had such a meaningful relationship with your dad.

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  6. Beautifully written, I need another couple of readings I think because you've articulated so much that I want to sit with for a time. I'm nearly 4 years out from my father's sudden collapse, and I wrote about that in much less detail (but with pictures) - https://twitter.com/Felixthefemale/status/1489694051402235908?t=tEXh3EaWoH1WDLWJKFRMQg&s=19

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  7. Tears. Hugs. From someone who lost a Dad and a dearest sister less than seven months apart (both within the last fifteen months).

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