How I Heal Myself through the Death of My Grandfather
Imagine it’s the end of your life, and before passing on to the next life, you must cross the River of Forgetfulness. Here in this river, you’ll have to forget all memories of this life time.
All but one. You get to choose one moment only. One precious moment that you’re allowed to remember in this life.
What would you choose?
I’d choose one afternoon of a day in April 1996. That afternoon my grandfather took me home on his old bicycle after school. I was a first-grader. I remember the orange sky, his thin back, his beret hat, the repeating sound of the paddles and the turning wheels, our shadows on the concrete road. I remember the small cake he bought for me, warm in the palms of my hands, smelling so yummy. The sky showered us with brilliant rays of sunlight. And my cheeks, and my feet, and my skin were pink and golden. Just us, grandpa and I, and nothing else but love and innocent joy.
On Sunday May 15, 2016, he died.
That day I was in HCMC doing a workshop tour. After all my students had left, I felt tired and happy, the tour went well and I gave my best. “Great! Now we just need to relax!” I hugged Talia. I was making my hair into a pony tail, getting ready to clean the room when my eyes caught her eyes. “Your dad called,” she said “Your grandpa died at 6PM." I froze. "He told me to wait till the end to tell you. He said…” I couldn't hear her voice. The world turned into a blur. My left hand still held up my hair. My right hand clutched the front of my shirt. I couldn’t see Talia's face because tears had covered my eyes.
When I woke up the morning after, everything was so silent. So that’s how the death of a loved one sounds like. Silent like a feather falls. I was the only one in the world who hear it and know when it touched the ground.
9 days have passed since then. These days, I must learn how to overcome the kind of pain that all of us must go through: the death of someone we love.
My grandpa hand-crafted the wooden animal I played when I was a child: elephant, lion, rabbit. I still remember them and the jungle story I told with them as my characters. I remember how he took me to the poetry reading. I remember how I marvelled at his paintings. Then I remember his body is now underground. No breath.
I keep getting snapped back and forth between the excruciating beautiful memories and his death - the reality that my heart deems unforgivable.
My brain tells my heart. “It’s okay. He’s 90. He lived a great life. Be happy for him!” “It’s just the body he left behind. His soul is now in heaven.” I'm smart enough to try to rationalise myself out of the pain.
But the 5-year-old me who played with that wooden elephant didn’t care. There’s nothing my brain says that can stop her. “He’s dead! I’m not happy!” She protests.
“You can’t dig him up, right?” My brain disapproves my childlike sadness.
All of a sudden, I want to cry. All of a sudden I want to play video games, to go shopping, to eat - anything to distract myself from this pain.
This leads up to the funeral, when all I feel is a hollow in my chest. I watch out for my dad and mom, try to help as much as I can. I am not happy, and I am not sad. I have turned myself into a rock.
Grandpa died on May 15, my birthday is May 23. On the night of May 22, Rapha and I lie on the bed. I curl up into a ball next to him, his arms wraps around me. I’m turning 26 now. It feels like the strangest birthday of my life.
I remember the night I flew from HCMC to Hanoi for the funeral. I got the window seat so I could look at the night sky as the plane took off. It was a clear night, so many stars. I realised that I was just a living thing on a dirt ball spinning in the universe where 3000 stars die and be born each second. We call this dirt ball “Earth”. In here, each second, 2 persons die and 4 babies are born.
I think of a line in The Untethered Soul: “What an amazing process life is, this flow of atoms through time and space.”
Who am I to resist this flow?
Who am I to resist his death?
Who am I to resist my emotion?
Who am I to resist Life?
Sadness rushes over me. I begin to choke up. I sob, and weep, and wail, and break down. My lips and shoulders quiver. I curl up to even a smaller ball. I cry the noisy cry of a child. Rapha hugs me tighter. He doesn't say a word. We fall asleep like that.
The morning after is my birthday. I surrender to what is. No more resistance. I let my emotion be. I whisper to myself “There there… it’s okay. Let it be felt. You can bear it. It will pass. It cannot kill you. It can only make you strong.”
How do we overcome pain?
We don’t. Our pain isn’t a challenge to overcome. It isn’t an enemy to conquer. It is a gift for us to embrace.
How to embrace? Just breathe and watch the brain making rationalisation. Just breathe and watch the heart making drama. But let then all go. Don't engage with the rationalisation or the drama.
Stay with the breaths, stay with the present moment. And no matter how hard your brain and heart urges you to run away or fight the pain. Stay right there. Soften your face, soften your chest. Instead of tighten up, cringe, contract; just release and relax as the emotion comes.
Feel your breaths, feel your body. Keep relaxing in the struggle, keep softening in the tears. Be the observer of the emotions. Let it does it job: to give you an emotional experience. It’s an energy and you can use it to sing a song, write a poem, draw a tree.
After it has done its’ job. It will pass. And what’s left? The experience that enriches your soul.
That’s why we’re here, aren’t we? To experience all the human experiences that life can offer. Each experience teaches us how to love. We must choose to love and to hope no matter how painful it seems.
Like how the poet William Blake said
“And we are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”
I am sad because I love him.
Because that afternoon in April 1996 we were together riding home in a golden sunset, with his feet on the paddle, and a warm cake in my hand. And even though this moment makes me choke up every time I think about it. I choose to keep it. I choose love. Even if it means to bear its beams for a little - or a long - while.