It is three days before my twentieth birthday, and I’m sitting inside Atticus Bookstore Cafe, looking for the right words to describe funerals. Saying ‘the right words’ feels like a disservice to the implied ‘wrong’ ones, because they haven’t done anything to deserve being punished. I just want words, right or wrong or somewhere in between, to express how sobering a parent’s funeral is.
My least favorite thing about funerals is that we’re expected to cry at them. Planning funerals so soon after death is ridiculous. There is no way of truly processing the size of space someone leaves in your life a mere week after they die. No way of telling whether they’re dead (like the four stages of mortis type somatic death) or whether they’ve just gone on a business trip. They’ll be back by Christmas. They won’t.
In my professional opinion, funerals should be held at least six months after a person dies. Funerals should be held when your mom finds a piece of clothing that smells like your dad, but neither of you know what to say so she puts it back. You don’t ask where. Funerals should be held in your kitchen every day after school, when you have to teach yourself how to cook because your dad isn’t there to (over)bake you mozzarella sticks from Costco. When your brother stops living in your house because someone’s died there, and ‘it’s bad 風水 (fēng shûi)’ but we can’t afford to remodel, and who gives a fuck anyway? When your dad dies and you’re struck by the glaring self-awareness of just how much everything means to you, but unlike lightning, it strikes once. Twice. Every day.
Before I discovered substance abuse and prose poetry, I had no outlet for my grief. I couldn’t dissolve Klonopin under my tongue like tasteless Smarties, or lose myself in a Pessoa or Miłosz poem that made me forget who I was. The tragedy of capitalism is that we must always want something in order to survive. What happens when the world keeps moving but you don’t? What happens when 拜拜* becomes something real, a tangible symbol that someone is gone instead of a freshly cooked meal, lit candles, open windows, and incense sticks propped in uncooked rice? I want clarity so thinking about it no longer feels like trying to see through the thick cloud of grief that clings to my skin like the sweltering humidity of Taiwanese summers. A funeral is no place for a child, regardless of how old they might feel. It’s funny how unfamiliar most people are with death, despite its inevitability.
The biggest misconception that most people have about grief is that it ends. One of the hardest pills for me to swallow after the beginning of my junior year was that love ends, but grief doesn’t. The only remedy is to continue to love and hope that someday the grief becomes small in comparison. For years I didn’t think of the ever expanding space between my ribs as grief. It was a friend to me. It taught me that really, we never know how much time we have left with someone. It taught me to send my favorite poems to them even if they don’t respond because I still know they read them. It taught me to buy their favorite fruit from the grocery store, to remember to use shark stickers when texting so we can match. It taught me that no love we ever give can be wasted.
Grief is granular, and tastes like 胡椒 (hú jiaō). It smells like joss paper and burnt vetiver. A breakup is really a funeral for a relationship. Most days I wake up and everything is beautiful, but I am so sad. This is not a new thought. My mom used to say to me, 哭笑不得 (kū xiào bù dé). I don’t know whether to cry or laugh. But I can wear both masks. For so long I looked for clarity through a sheet of dirty glass, but it was a mirror. I can live on my own, but why should I?
I am constantly thinking of two things: first, how I want to love and be loved, ad infinitum; second, how I, too, am going to die someday. These two things are not mutually exclusive. I want longevity, in both life and death. Be gentle with each other.
And don’t forget: empathy, no matter how small, is luminous.
* 拜拜 (bàibài): a traditional Taiwanese custom of honoring ancestors