A season of grief

Winter passes and spring comes again

할머니 died on the first day of Pisces season.

My other grandmother died on the first day of spring, the start of Aries season.

Two months ago, I had two grandmothers. Now I have none.

It has been a month—a season—of grief.

On Monday, March 8, 2021, we buried my 할머니.

The service was originally supposed to be on the 4th, but due to the cemetery being overwhelmed by the number of burials due to the pandemic, the funeral date kept being moved around. It wasn’t until late the evening of the 3rd that we finalized the date.

It turns out the matters of death are just as chaotic and unpredictable as the matters of life, but that’s perhaps because funerals are for the living, not the dead.

I knew funerals were for the living and not the dead when my mother hired a bagpiper to play Amazing Grace at 할머니’s graveside service.

“Are you Scottish?” the bagpiper asked as we paid him, glancing about the cemetery in confusion. The deceased and several of the mourners were Korean, although a handful of pasty white folk were scattered amongst the family.

“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “Not even remotely. My mother just likes bagpipes.” For some unfathomable reason, I thought but did not say aloud.

And it’s true. My mother has always had a fascination with the Celtic isles, with Ireland especially. Her favorite book is Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, and she has always lamented the fact that she wasn’t named Kelly.

“Because,” I used to reply with a roll of my eyes, “neither 할머니 nor 할아버지 were Irish.”

And so our bagpiper played for our explicitly Not Scottish family as the Korean pastor led the service beside a casket with a My grandmother never cared for bagpipes, but I like to think she didn’t mind having them played at her grave. She indulged my mother in nearly everything in life; she wouldn’t begrudge her daughter this after her death.

The funeral went well, if that’s an appropriate word we can use to describe funerals. My mother asked me to write a eulogy, so I wrote one on the plane to California. I’ve never written a eulogy before, but it seemed to be well-received. My white aunt even asked for a copy because it was, So beautiful, Sarah, you really are a writer, aren’t you, honey?

Before the service, my mother scanned the printout I had in my hand and told me sternly that a funeral was not the place to be funny and to change it.

“Too late,” I said. “You asked me to write a eulogy, and this is the eulogy we’re getting.”

할머니 indulged me in nearly everything in life; she wouldn’t grudge me this after her death.

Besides, she would probably laugh.

I could desperately use a laugh. A real one. I haven’t laughed in weeks.

My dad and I joke about death on the drive home from the cemetery.

“Just roll me up in a carpet and dump me off the side of the freeway,” he says.

“Are you sure that’s the most eco-neutral way to dispose of a body?” I tease. My dad has always been ecologically conscious, in the way people who are born and raised Californians often are. Even in death, he would prefer to leave as little a footprint as possible. “Besides, I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”

I tell him that there are companies who can turn a person’s ashes into diamonds, and that I would love to literally and physically haunt future generations as a some sort of heirloom. A macabre joke. The idea tickles me to no end, imagining some distant future relation of mine proposing with the prettified remains of my body. This is Aunt JJ. Oh, did you mean this ring belonged to your Aunt JJ? No, the ring is Aunt JJ.

“But I think I want my remains to nourish some other life,” I say. “Plant a Japanese maple with my ashes.”

“They do that in Korea,” my mother says after a moment. “Entire forests planted from the bodies of our ancestors.”

I’m surprised. I don’t know much about native Korean rituals and rites; immigration, English, and Christianity have stolen them from me. Yet despite all that, I instinctively want the one thing my ancestors used to do.

“Just don’t cremate me,” my dad says. “It’s bad for the environment. The business of death is bad for the environment.”

“Capitalism itself is bad for the environment,” I return, and he doesn’t disagree.

My mother grows quiet. Unlike the Joneses, she doesn’t have much of a sense of humor about death. Practical matters she can handle, but laughter is hard. But my father and me? We need the pressure release laughter brings. For us, humor about death is irreverence. We have to make light of it.

“What are we going to do when it’s Mama’s turn?” I ask. My dad’s mother is my one surviving grandparent. “Papa hasn’t been buried yet, right?” My grandmother and grandfather intended their ashes to be buried together in his grandmother’s grave. Papa, like me, was raised by his grandmother.

“No, your grandfather is somewhere at the back of your uncle Steve’s closet,” Dad says. “We’re probably going to have to find him pretty soon.”

Two days after I return home to Pittsburgh, my dad texts me to say that my surviving grandmother fell out of bed, that she was in the hospital unconscious, and unlikely to wake up.

I don’t know if I’m okay.

Wait, perhaps I’ve phrased that wrong.

I don’t know if I’m okay—if I’m normal—in my grief. If I’m overreacting. If I’m underreacting. If I’m being melodramatic. If I’m a sociopath.

If I’m coping.

Maybe that’s it. I don’t know if I’m coping. I don’t know what coping looks like.

And then I realize I don’t know what grief looks like.

There is, I’ve realized, a limit to what one can learn from books.

Grief is not what I expected based on the books I’ve read. As a child, I thought grief was prolonged sorrow, feeling sad for days upon days upon weeks upon months upon years. As I grew older, I thought grief was perhaps something like depression, that which leaches the world of color, leaving it dim and desaturated. Grief could also sometimes be anger, or numbness, or guilt, or resentment, or bitterness. Grief could encompass a lot of emotions and when 할머니 passed away, I braced myself for the tidal wave of feelings to overwhelm me.

But that didn’t happen.

I mostly felt tired instead.

The first thing I noticed in the weeks since I came back from California was that my hands were always cold. I’ve always had cold hands (despite having good circulation), but this cold was different. I was frozen from the inside out. I radiated chill. My breaths shuddered, my limbs trembled. I couldn’t sit at my desk to write because my fingers shivered so hard I could barely type. It didn’t help the guilt I felt.

I felt guilty for not producing, for not writing, for not paying my bills, for not feeding myself, for avoiding bureaucratic headaches, but to my surprise, this guilt was not related to my grief. This guilt was the everyday ordinary anxiety of feeling like I was constantly failing adulthood. This guilt I could cope with in my usual ways, like working out or taking a bath or watching old seasons of Bon Voyage with BTS. Self-care is sold as a luxury when it should be a right. Self care is medicine.

I avoid all social media whenever possible. I see news of the Atlanta spa shootings breaks, then viral video after viral video of people attacking Asian-American elders flood my screen.

These victims are my 할머니. My mother. I feel every single one of those deaths like they belong to me. They do belong to me. Many Asian languages don’t differentiate between terms we use for family and elders outside the family. I just keep losing and losing and losing and losing.

The blood pools in my core, warmth and vitality retreating and retreating and retreating from my peripheries until I become nothing but a red beating heart of pain. I have no space inside me. No room for anything but the next thing and the next thing and the next and the next most pressing thing. Surviving reduces your field of view to just what’s ahead of you because the darkness is thick about your neck, pressing down, choking you, and there are snarls and growls at your heels but you can’t stop, you can’t turn around, you can’t take a goddamn breath because the night is smothering and the beast at your heels is only half a pace behind.

I think the beast is grief.

So I just keep moving, keep running, because when the grief finally catches up, I think I will die.

On the first day of spring, my dad texted to let me know that Mama had passed away.

She never woke up after her fall.

People ask me how I’m doing and I don’t know what to say. It’s partially because I hate pity, however well-intentioned, earnest, loving, or genuine. I hate enduring someone else’s concern, genuine or not, and I hate my emotions being witnessed and perceived by others most of all.

But the honest truth is I’m not sure I’m doing well, but neither am I sure that I’m not doing well. I’ve managed a relatively consistent work out routine. I eke out a couple hours of sleep every night. I make my bed. I eat. I lose large swaths of the day to…I don’t know what. I haven’t read a single book. I haven’t played a single video game. I think I watch a couple of videos on YouTube here and there. I can’t remember.

Why can’t I remember?

I know I spend a lot of my time hating myself. Hating that I can’t be a fucking human being, that I can’t get my life together, that I can’t absorb this numbness, that I’m a psychological weakling that seems to crumble at the slightest pressure. I hate everything, but what I hate most about is how much grief feels like self-pity. Like self-indulgence.

I can’t stand feeling sorry for myself.

Whenever people ask how I’m doing, it only adds to my self-pity, and I’m weighed down by their love. I just don’t have space to feel heavy all the time. I don’t want the weight, I want to shed it. I don’t want people to treat me gently; I want people to pretend I’m okay. Yet at the same time, I don’t want others to trivialize my loss, nor do I want them to use my grief as a cudgel to beat me with pity.

I don’t know what I want.

So I turn into a petulant child—sulky, snappish, irritable, and desperately in need of a nap.

I wish I could cry.

I’m sentimental, easily moved to tears by stirring orchestral strings, puppy videos, Pixar films, and anything that inspires tender, mushy feelings. I’m Soft™, as the kids say. I’ve teared up several times since I lost both grandmothers, but I haven’t cried. Not yet. And I want to.

It would be such a relief.

Because it would be a validation of my grief.

CW: Mental health, bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts

Of all the bizarre things, I’ve discovered that it’s BTS’s adaptation of Mariah Carey and Miguel’s #beautiful that finally makes me sob.

There is something about grief that makes me run straight toward the boys of 방탄소년단. In the summer of 2020, I was in the midst of one of the worst mental health crises I had ever been in my life, and the only people that kept me from dying—quite literally—were seven young men from South Korea. I spent a large chunk of that summer consuming every bit of their content I could find, until they had completely transformed my suicidal thoughts into happier ones. I practically lived on my blue living room couch the month of July, ordering delivery and watching all available episodes of 달려라 방탄! (Run BTS) for free on the VLive app.

I’ve back to living on my blue couch a lot lately.

For those who aren’t ARMY (the name for BTS’s fandom), it’s hard to describe the protective affection—애정—these boys can engender. Yes they’re talented, yes they’re charming, yes they’re attractive, but the most appealing thing about the members of BTS is that they are a family. It’s the same reason people love the Fast and the Furious franchise. That closeness—that bond—is where I find the most comfort, the most healing. It seems natural that BTS would be close; they’ve lived together (and still do, for the most part) ever since they were teenagers.

Because I came into fandom in 2020 with Map of the Soul: 7, my first impression of the members of BTS are of young men rather than the teenagers they were when they first debuted in 2013. Because they debuted in 2013, there is a lot of content to catch up on, and there were many things I hadn’t seen yet as I lay on my blue couch of grief.

Including their adaptation of #beautiful.

Early in their years as an official group, BTS released covers and original songs for free on their Soundcloud, and one of those songs was turned into a cute little music video were four of the younger members—J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook—try wooing another girl.

I press play.

As someone who first met the members as young men, watching this video of them as teenagers in 2013 is DE-VAS-TA-TING. Babies. Just…babies. All of them. Literally. Jungkook was only 15 when they debuted, Jimin and V were 17, and J-Hope was 19. Oh god, just let me give these boys some banana milk and Korean rice puffed crackers. BABIES. LOOK AT THESE BABIES SINGING ABOUT CRUSHING ON A GIRL IN THEIR DANCE CLASS FROM AFAR.

All four featured in the video are worlds away from the image they tried to craft for themselves as teenagers. Back then, they tried so hard to project an image of tough masculinity (as children lol), and the bravado is heartbreaking. It’s there in Jimin’s toned biceps and affected swagger, so different from his slithery, almost ethereal grace today. It’s there in J-Hope’s wardrobe, a Korean entertainment agency’s idea of what “real” street hip-hop dancers (of which he was one) look like—hard, not the cheerful, sunny person he actually is. It’s there in the too-large features of V and Jungkook’s faces, not yet filled in to reveal the handsome men they would grow up to be.

I burst into tears.

To my shock, I realize that I am mourning. I am mourning the loss of their tender and fragile boyishness, their childhoods and youths consumed by performing and media and fame. Jimin’s pillowy-soft cheeks, Jungkook’s too-big nose, V’s enormous ears, J-Hope’s gawkish-ness. It feels silly, these tears; who am I to be sobbing over an idol group like this? Like I raised them somehow, even though I only met them less than a year ago? I don’t know them and they don’t know I exist.

My tears subside, and I feel better than I have in a long while. The atmospheric pressure in my chest is gone and lassitude fills my lungs, my breathing slow. My body feels the way it used to after swim practice when I was a kid, curled up in the backseat of my parents’ 1989 tan Volvo sedan and drinking a juice box while 할머니 stroked my wet hair. A deep quiet is in my bones.

I play the video again and start crying once more, but this time the pain feels different. The pang over their lost innocence is changed—gentler, more sentimental, almost nostalgic, the way a parent would press their hand to their heart at rediscovering their child’s first onesie, long since outgrown. I discover that each time I cry over Baby BTS, the pain of loss grows less and less.

My pain grows less and less.

I suddenly understand why I’m mourning.

My own losses are like the sun during an eclipse—I can’t look at them directly without harming myself. Grieving the innocent children BTS had been is safe because I don’t know them. It’s safe because I know it seems to have turned out all right, because they have each other.

일곱이라 다행이다
함께여서 다행이다

What a relief we are seven
What a relief we are together

—Suga, poem titled 다행이다 (What A Relief)

It will turn out all right for me too. I have to believe that. I do believe that. Or I will, if not yet.

Until then, I put the song on repeat. The bass line starts once more, plucking my heartstrings as surely as the riff, as I sob over and over and over again.

Sunlight was close and present when I curled up the deck chair to take a nap, the heat a tangible weight on my skin like a blanket.

It’s the first truly warm and sunny day in almost a year. We’ve had a few days false warmth, where a chill lingers in the air despite the temperature, where the heat of sun feels distant and far away. The platonic ideal of spring is that the days gradually grow warmer, but in reality, it doesn’t work that way. The truth is, meteorological seasons as we experience them are just an average over time. During winter, there are more cold days than warm, and as we get closer to spring, there are more warm days than cold.

Spring has finally come to Pittsburgh.

Growing up in Los Angeles, turning of spring to summer to fall to winter and back again was not something particularly noticeable. Southern California has (or used to have) three Mediterranean-ish seasons: Cool and wet, dry and hot, and just plain perfect. As a child, I would read books set in places with Actual Weather™ and daydreamed about living there some day. I was always the most excited about autumn and winter, mostly because I believed in my child-mind that I had never experienced either of those seasons properly.

But it wasn’t until I had been living in New York City for a few years that I realized that the season I should have been most excited about was spring.

I didn’t know until I moved to a place with Actual Weather™ that spring had a smell. All four seasons do, but I never noticed it before until I lived through winters cold enough for the earth to die. Flowers and plants grow through the entire in Los Angeles. Our mild climate is perfect for being outdoors all the time; our in-ground pools were maintained year-round. Outdoor water polo was a winter sport in my high school. So when I first moved to New York, the complete and utter absence of life during winter was a revelation.

Because it was only then I noticed when life starts to return.

It’s a very cliche thing to talk about spring as a season when life starts to return, but until I’d experienced real spring, I never knew how true this was.

It starts with the scent of green.

If I could figure out how to capture this essence and bottle it with some sort of alchemy, I would. I’ve tried in various ways to describe the way oncoming spring smells before, and have failed every time. All I can say is that it is a green smell—the barest whiff of damp in a world of ice, moist black loam, the implication of sharp, of yellow, and the tiniest hint of decay. After weeks of nothing, the fragrance of spring is noticeable.

It used to amaze me how I could walk down the streets of the East Village during the dead of winter (or so it felt to my thin-blooded self) and suddenly catch a shift in the breeze that unexpectedly reminded me life would not always be this miserable and dark and cold. I hate the cold; 15 years of living in places with Real Seasons™ has not changed that at all. Yet this whiff, this barely perceptible hint of green never failed to bring me hope, even when it was still 35 degrees outside.

It smells green now.

I don’t nap long, but for the first time in a long time, I feel truly rested. I come back inside, the warmth of the spring sun still in my skin and clothes. I sit down at my desk, turn on my computer, and lift my hands to my keys.

My hands aren’t cold anymore.