Tag: grief

should we have stayed home?

How did we get here again?

In the days trailing Christmas, Lisbon steadfastly follows all the rules. I’m at once grateful and desolate about the relative safety I’m indulging in, of a country whose people were so devastated early on that they are now strict in attempts to ward off the inevitable. Is that what it takes? The consequences of a past so deep that we can’t ignore the future? It hasn’t seemed to work yet, I think grimly about home, about love, about bids for forgiveness. At least they are trying, I accept, as I walk twenty thousand steps per day to reward myself with pastéis de nata. On one of my sojourns I wander into a bookstore across from a museum, tucked away in a northern suburb where tourists are less likely to go. The newest issue of Granta lures me from its perch. Should we have stayed home? issue 157 inquires, alluding to the familar lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s famous poem. I am reverent, called-out, shameful over my first vacation in a long time.

Two years ago we wrote about this, earnestly thinking that after 2 weeks we’d have finished the canned beans we stocked up on. Two months ago we wrote about this, thinking we’d fold our cloth masks and put them away for the future. I saw some people string up cloth masks above their rooftops in triumph at believing they wouldn’t need them anymore; I saw others burn theirs. It’s different the second time around and even moreso the third, they’ll tell you about lockdown, and sex, and falling in love. That’s diminishing it, I know, but we’re all doing our best (we claim).

B sends me TikToks that I don’t watch until I do: bingeing his torrential messages in secret while attempting to sleep, but in public declaring that I’m “too old” to be a millennial and that I don’t watch TikToks. I kid myself when wondering why I suffer from insomnia, but at this point I gladly accept the burden of sleeplessness over other looming ailments. I rewatch The Walking Dead a third time, and this time it seems so close to the truth that I have to turn away to things like Sandra Bullock romantic comedies.

I return home again (what is home?), and I can still taste the cinnamon on my tongue. On every street corner, discarded fir and pine trees tumble into one another next to the metal bins. In the rare event that it’s not raining, Vondelpark is packed; gloved hands full of glühwein and dogs’ leashes. A surge of pessimistic foresight led me to purchase dumbbells at a suburban Target before I moved, and I use them every day. My friends invite themselves over to my place for dinner; they feel trapped, they feel alone. I make food for them on weekends. We sing songs from Moulin Rouge to pass the time. My neighbors across the street decidedly close their drapes to avoid watching me throw solo dance parties to Enrique Iglesias music videos from the 90s. But really I want someone to invite me on a roadtrip in their converted van, so that we can hide from the Greek alphabet and cook dinners over butane stoves in national parks while watching the stars. That’s a privileged-ass thing to be able to want, just like craving B’s curated TikToks under the safety of my Marimekko bedspread to the sound of the Dutch rain. On my daily walks I listen to podcast stories about death and collective grief. I think about my personal grief every day, but don’t write about it.

On cold nights I bike past the Amstel, noting the yellow holiday lights strung on tree branches blinking silently on the river and echoing our hope. Past due, left on for a little too long, yet still glowing like embers next to the bobbing moonlight.

glass jars

i walked to the coffee shop that makes matcha teas the way i like them (yes so bougie). and  while waiting, i looked carefully at all the too-fancy glass jars of jam on the shelves. rose petal preserves, traditional quince preserves, organic fir honey, bergamot preserves (which is a type of citrus).

i reminisced about when people would still spend time in the kitchen to make things based on grandmothers’ handwritten recipes, and not just drink or eat ready-made things out of a plastic container. i remember the way my grandmother would cook meals in her tiny apartment in Tainan. it was always dim, they never turned the lights on (to conserve on energy bill). my grandfather always sitting at the small table kind of grumpily, surrounded by his calligraphy paintbrushes. his face was always stuck in a strict, mean expression. i was absolutely terrified of him.

when he was dying, i sat by his bedside at the hospital and stared at his white hair and sunken cheeks. the strong mouth i was terrified of because it was always saying too-mean things in Mandarin, it lay silent. when he did gain consciousness, he would tell me about my childhood self, not knowing i was the same person. not recognizing the adult version of the girl he talked about. he would ask me to fetch his paintbrushes so that he could practice his calligraphy, though he was too weak to even hold them.

i was overwhelmed at how it felt. i wondered how to treat this sudden lack of terror towards him. we tell ourselves that keeping the uncomfortable parts of someone’s presence would be worth it, just let us keep them. please, just let us keep them here by our sides on earth for the rest of this lifetime. “these are the things i would trade for him to stay,” we shout into the void.

at the altar where my elders’ photos hang, i felt the universe moving, adjusting to the loss of a soul. the fishbone that had been caught in his throat led to the discovery of other cancers that had invaded his body.

such tiny, invisible things that alter us.
such huge things that change us, that can in no way be contained or understood.
the mystery that hangs in the stillness between worlds, between us and loved ones lost.

i wondered what we could do, put their souls in glass jars, keep them safe, preserve them? mix them with rose petals and bergamot, pour in all the sweetness stocked up in ourselves that we saved up thinking there would be a better time in the future to say the necessary, come up with a new name for the concoction. give the soul-preserves a forever shelf life, and keep them present within every food we eat and at every meal we share.

Grief is a thing with feathers.

“To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.”

— Rebecca Solnit


You know, we all want to appear like we have our shit together. Grief is a hard thing to write about without sounding negative. I’ve been doing a lot of magical thinking these days. Somehow I keep thinking you’ll hear me from across the ocean, which is the point of calling it magical. The tiny part of me that knows you won’t, that tiny part grows larger every day. Does this cause relief or despair? I can’t tell the difference.


I stared down at the camera you gave me that has not turned on since our last trip together. “Click, click,” the on button does nothing. I set it back down carefully. I looked in dismay at my beloved Kindle, stuck (ironically) on the last page of a book called The Course Of Love. It wouldn’t budge. The universe was telling me something. Every one of the electronic things that surrounded me in my life ceased to turn on, one by one, in your absence. I then put my phone down anxiously, wondering if it, too, will eventually crack under the pressure. Nervous from thinking about cracking under pressure, I will my heart to withstand.

“There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in.”

I vehemently think, maybe besides the electronics you send everyone in your life, I just wanted you to show up at my door. Point at your chest. Show me it’s home. I want to be different from all the things and people you plug into, turn on, replace, upgrade, discard, abandon, lose. The ones that stay in your home in lieu of me.

It’s hard to want one of everything. It’s harder still to turn them down when offered, one by one.

Why do we think we should act so differently when the world is burning and we only have a few more days to live? Why would we hold each other close and relish the last few days, and yet when we have years we decide we can take our sweet time? Then of course we will look back and think, “it was too late. I should’ve done more, sooner.” We are the kings and queens of taking things for granted.

My anger feels unbearable. Am I angry at you, or at the loss of you? Am I angry because I’m scared of what would happen if I stopped being angry?


Since you’ve been gone, T. and I talk almost every day and we write in our secret blogs about grief. It helps to know someone is listening. Sadness can span any amount of time. There is no limit. It’s ok to not have a limit. Yet our culture of mastery and closure demands that there be clearly outlined phases, demands that there will be an end. Is it self-preservation or a form of denial to think there is always a finite and linear route, a light at the end of the tunnel?

We even have imaginary hierarchies of grief. I am certain we all tell ourselves things like: “surely, a death that has already occurred is certainly a greater heartbreak than ambiguous loss,” or “psh, the end of a relationship is no comparison to greater griefs that could occur.” Or, “it’s been X number of months, so I should feel fine now.” The lines get blurry.

As T. says, grief isn’t a competition. But we are only human. Even in our hearts we attempt to rank things, willing it to be so, searching for reasons to excuse ourselves from feeling fully. As if telling ourselves that “it’s not a big deal” and we should “be over it already” will magically make it true. In the movie Crazy, Stupid Love, there is that scene when the coworkers at his office find out about why he’s grieving. The coworker’s response is, “Oh thank god man, it’s ‘just’ a divorce! It could have been cancer!” And he mutters, “Yeah, thank god. It’s just my relationship.”

I held C. while she sobbed, “I thought we would grow old together. I wanted to grow old with him.” Inside, my heart was caving. Me, too.

I’ve never had the right words to tell my stories, but we can only take the words we have and rearrange them in various attempts. Sometimes, when I’m feeling the most brave, I imagine the only place the stories translate correctly is in my eyes. Sometimes I feel more brave and think that if I just allow you to look into them, you will finally understand. It’s magical thinking- the West Village brownstone we’d share together, the food adventures, the 2 minute planks and dairy-less pizza AND ice cream afterwards. And then I wake up from those dreams. And it doesn’t seem to work in real life. Others occupy your room, your bed. My eyes go dark. There is nothing to be read within them. But sometimes illiteracy is the obstacle, isn’t it?

Eugenides writes, “Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy,’ or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I’d like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.'”

Anyway. So as grief buddies, we ended up reading this post (Grief Magic) together (excerpts after the jump), and I felt like I had been dropped back in the middle of this vast ocean where you are on a shore I don’t know how to navigate to. These themes repeat in my writing, but I’ve seen in all my reading that we simply have to write about things until we are done writing about them. And that might take a lifetime.

But it’s okay, like Rapp says in her essay: we have everything ahead of us, and nothing at all. Perhaps there’s comfort in that, or at least some Germanic train-car hybrid emotion that can finally encompass our history together.

I get close to the shores I can find. I reach out to touch the water. Magically hoping that you’ll know. Magically hoping you’ll reach back.

hello, it's me

Never mind if he calls, the places you get
through inwardness take time, and to drift
down to the shore of the island, you know
by the sand moving, even the coarse sand here
It’s hard to say if you can even stand up, there
but there is blue sky, and blue water tipping up
the same distance from you as your face. Its face
goes further behind the eyes, without weight
or haze, and the horizon is just a change where
from going deeper you go wider, but go

— Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge



Excerpts from “Grief Magic” by Emily Rapp, via The Rumpus:

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