Grief is a Tricky Thing

Content warning: suicide.

I knew when I set out to write this post, it would be one of the more challenging ones. Grief. At the risk of sounding overly melodramatic, my life is punctuated by this word. In particular, my early childhood before going to live with my adoptive parents was marked by numerous losses, none may be more heavy than the loss of my 아빠 (Appa, birth father) when I was six and everything that has meant for me since.

I wish I could say I had more memories to sift through to draw him fully into being for this post. My birth parents divorced around the time I was two, I believe. My 엄마 (Eomma, birth mother) went back to Korea to live with her parents in an effort to salvage what bit of life she could. I know little of the events and contexts that came after beyond my going and coming as I have been told very little about it. After living with my 아빠 (Appa) for some time, it was decided I would go to Korea to stay with a family friend, 아줌마 (Ajumma, means like ma’am, married-aged woman, etc., but this was the term I am said to have called her). I would live there with her for about two years. This, along with my young age, made having lasting memories of him near impossible.

My return came after my 아빠 (Appa) remarried. I recall being told then that he wanted me to come back home with him to be a real family. When I visited my 엄마 (Eomma) and 아줌마 (Ajumma) in 2019, they told me of our heartbreaking farewell. 아줌마 (Ajumma) had had to separate us into different rooms because I was inconsolable at having to leave my 엄마 (Eomma), and she was in no better shape in knowing I was to return halfway around the world from her. I boarded a plane back to the United States and would not see either of them again for nearly 30 years.

I settled into a small home in a mid-sized city in the southeast with my 아빠 (Appa) and new stepmother. My memories of her are even dimmer, apart from a general unease and dislike. He ran a dry cleaning business in town which wasn’t exactly lucrative so our humble home was nestled in what some might deem the less desirable part of town. Despite my laser memory that often can dredge up memories from the youngest of age, my few short months spent with him are a small catalogue of fleeting moments. The smell of the freshly cut grass the day that I played outside in spring. The frustration I felt at trying to learn and understand phonics of a language I was only just beginning to learn. The embarrassment I felt at school being unable to communicate my discomfort with having the hiccups, being unable to pluck the word from my brain. Helping my 아빠 (Appa) work on putting a bench inside his van. Some orange-tinged memory of him building a bike that was entirely too large for me. Falling asleep to him playing the guitar, my own personal lullaby.

One such memory was a time I told him I was afraid of dying. I’m honestly not sure what alerted my little six-year old mind to this idea but I remember the intense fear of dying. I remember him assuring me that he would be with me always, he would never leave me. Some many years ago, I could even hear his voice telling me this. That sound is lost to me now having tried too many times to grasp it and hold it, only to have it slip through my fingers. I wish it were that I could even do that today. I recall an older memory, still, from when I was making the trips back and forth from Korea. I was scared of the plane falling down out of the sky. My 아빠 (Appa) told with ease me that he would simply swim to find and rescue me. That answer just wasn’t good enough. What if we crashed into a mountain? Then, he told me, he would climb to find me. He would always find me.

My memories of the night my 아빠 (Appa) died are like trying to see through a darkened, windowless room, dimly spotlighted here and there on singular moments. It came a number of nights after a particularly bad fight between my 아빠 (Appa) and stepmother. He came down, red-eyed with the tears already shed and more yet to come, and told me he was going to the dry cleaning store. I paid little attention to his current state being all in my doll-playing, six-year-old distracted self. As he got up to leave, he turned to ask for a hug. This was the moment, the moment that if I were ever granted a do-over of a single moment in my whole life…this was that moment. Instead, I half-heartedly gave him a hug, annoyed at having to leave behind my make-believe world, and he took leave of our house for the last time. It would be last time I would hear his voice, the last time I would feel his embrace, the last time.

Suicide is a word I came to know at too young an age. For years it was a word that carried a silent countdown to detonation. An explosion happened once my freshman year of high school in English class. Who knows what novel we were reading at the time, but we were having a class discussion on the meaning and symbolism of the story. A classmate expressed that they simply couldn’t understand how anyone could ever be so selfish. They asserted with confidence that anyone who had done this was being rightfully punished in hell for their sin. In that moment, I felt so exposed, so raw as someone laid bare what I knew so many believed about suicide…and maybe what I most feared to be true. I shakily stood in class, tears streaming down my face, loudly condemning my classmate for their misguided ideas of something they couldn’t dream of understanding. I received looks from peers I’d known since elementary school…peers that had come to know me as peculiar, quirky, if not a bit strange, for never having been able to conform to their carefree ideas of life.

It’s taken many years of processing, therapy, and my own education to find a place of kind of peace with this word. I know how little people generally know of this topic or the dramatic and life-altering impact it can have. I can understand people casting judgment on it as though they themselves are somehow exempt from contemplating or being impacted by it. I know the intense stigma and distance people want to create around it. I also know the pain, emptiness, hopeless, and shame humans feel in moments of despair.

Grief is a tricky thing. At various points in my life, I thought I had power over it. I thought I had mastered it, only to have it appear to slap me cold across my face. I don’t understand this concept some seem to have around “getting over” the loss of someone, the grief. For me, grief always sits quiet in the background. I’m reminded of my grief in the oddest of moments. Watching a Kdrama with my husband and tearing up with empathy for the character’s loss of their parent. Hearing the word suicide a thousand times without reaction, until that one time it inexplicably gut-punches me. Sometimes it’s even when I’m experiencing moments of joy.

This is certainly not to say that I am crippled by grief, far from it. It’s rather that grief is something I’ve managed to come to understand. For me, coming to peace with grief has meant respecting that it’s a sort of friend that’s come to stay for the duration. I could fight with it or deny it or I can simply make space for it in a small corner of my heart in honor of the love I’ve given and lost over the years.

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