On Grief and Grieving

So as things drew to a close I found myself grieving a lot. And I mean A LOT.

It got pretty hairy at times. I threw bags and clothes and some cushions around. Thankfully no breakable furniture – I still remain proud of the fact that I have only ever broken one chair in anger my entire life – which is more than some people who are NOT suffering from severe mental illness can say!

I grieved for what seemed everything. I loved anime art so much but I never learned to draw. I had such dreams of becoming a game designer but they never reached fruition, even in a small way. I deeply desired to go to university but it never happened. I wanted to break into game translation and make a possible career out of it but that hung fire as well.

I loved films but that never went anywhere either (except for a lot of research and analysis…always the research and analysis) I wanted to do more cosplay at one point but time, energy and money issues prevented me from doing so. I wanted to learn music when I first came back from America.

That one was a doozy. I walked into the living room one night in despair and my Mum immediately knew something was wrong. To her credit she tried to stay and listen and bring me water and tissues, which helped.

I remembered all the music I wanted to play. Here was the SNES on one hand, and the piano on another. Not so difficult right? Apparently not. Everything had gotten swept up in the divorce, the PhD, the school, the…I knew the story by heart by now but that didn’t make it any easier.

I cried and I cried and I cried and I cried. So many songs that I had never learnt. I saw in my heart’s eye that little thirteen year boy who had just played Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 6 and just wanted to learn how to play the songs there. The tears flowed and wouldn’t stop.

The list kept going and going. I grieved for the normal family that I never had. All the talent and ambition that had been used to shore up the rifts in the family that never stopped asking for more – and never stopped breaking apart. So much pain. So much sacrifice.

Twenty-one years! All the time since when I came back from America, from when the world had ended not once but many many times over. That is not a short length of time – it was an entire lifetime. And I had never truly let myself feel its loss until now.

I used to read about young people going out and doing this and that – all the things that I wanted to do. All the people who went out and got jobs in the fields that I wanted to – translation, music, writing, art. And I was stuck at home with my fucked-up family and fucked-up life and fucked-up everything.

I grieved perhaps not just for my lost twenty-one years but for other things as well. I grieved for my parents, for their own pain and lost potential. The old injunctions against feeling appeared and asked me why I should be crying when children in Africa were dying. I simply replied that I had enough tears for them as well – for the entire world, in fact.

Grieving is a magical, mysterious and mystical process, and I grieved too for my mother and the countless others upon the Earth who do not know of its healing properties, who are reluctant and afraid (or just plain don’t know or were never taught) to shed one tear, yet alone the bucketfuls I have.

However well-crafted or erudite or reasoned my answers were, no matter how logical and how much they made sense or how TRUE they were, the fact remains that I DIDN’T GET TO DO THESE THINGS. AND IT HURT GODDAMNIT. That is the common factor all grief shares, whether it is the loss of a loved one or a beloved pet or a job or even a child’s spilled ice-cream. It’s gone. And you hurt. And maybe later it doesn’t matter and you feel it’s all for the good and in the long run oh my god who cares anyway?

And sometimes it’s NOT a rationalization and it’s true. But it still hurts! It still hurts. We have to (I have had to) acknowledge that hurt, honor it, love it, listen to it. For it is the voice of a new creation, what has come before and what is passing.

For me it also came as something of a revelation. I have read books on grief, studied it, known it – or I thought I had. Indeed in the intervening years it is not as if I did not grieve at all. But it was always shortchanged, abrogated, cut off – like most things in my life. I came to the knowledge that I had a lot more grief than I initially thought. It wasn’t safe to grieve then and that was why I didn’t. Sadness was seen as unnatural, dangerous, something to be avoided at all costs. Don’t be sad, my mother would often say. You have a house, food to eat, a bed to sleep on…what do you have be sad about? Only everything?

Grief can be strange. At times a waterfall or a razor. The sweetest-smelling of roses, or a torn and bleeding heart. A benediction that feels all too much like a curse most of the time. But it continued unabated nonetheless. And grief heals.

I remember a session with Florence in which, at a fever pitch of emotion, I burst out saying that “the pain IS the healing.” Which it is, if you will but let it be.

Let it be…something that I seemingly had no chance to do at all my entire life. There was always something else to be done, some shield or barrier that I had to erect to block off this or that. No way to simply let yourself feel, to be a human being instead of a human doing. The Beatles were right all this time but no one listened.

What do I regret the most? Grieve the most? Besides everything, of course. Mainly doing, doing things. I was always on the sidelines, looking on from a distant windowpane and blinking like Rei in the EVA opening. I thought and analyzed and researched and thought some more. But whenever it was time to do something I would back off. Write? Too hard, too painful. Get a job? Too much baggage. Go to school? The same. There was always something in the way – never my fault, but in the way nonetheless.

I even allowed myself to feel my long-hidden regret about Meimei. Actually it wasn’t long-hidden at all, it was always in the open. Truth be told I would have done it all over again – taking her to school, cooking her favorite food, reading the bedtime stories, helping her with friends and work and basically everything. But it was a lot of sacrifice – a whole life’s worth. I never begrudged her and I never will, but she was indeed one of the reasons I could not have lived my life the way I wanted to.

The unspoken promise I made to myself and her that I didn’t even know I had – the three conditions that had to be fulfilled before I could move on. Meimei had to complete her university education and get the degree that I never got. She had to learn a skill – in this case, Japanese – so that she would be able to get a job no matter whatever happened. It helps that Japanese to English translators are pretty highly sought after – it’s one of the highest paid language pairs in the world.

And finally, she would have to be in therapy regularly, so she could have help dealing with the scars of the past and the problems that I couldn’t touch or assist with. After many years, all those three things happened. As Lelouch in Code Geass might have said – “Shouri jouken wa kuria shita. (The conditions for victory have been cleared.)

But when that promise had at long last been fulfilled, I was 29. Ready to step out on my own when the OCD struck. Then I went to Australia, and then to the two retreats, and I came back, and then…and then I was here. At Thirty-three. Writing this.

I knew the reasons for my grief of course, just like I knew the reasons for most of the pain in my life. It didn’t make it any easier to bear. Though truth be told I’ve met others who don’t know the reasons AND have the pain, and I consider myself lucky. The mind can block things out and make it hard to feel but the mind can also illuminate and bring the light of knowledge to the self. That’s part of why psychology exists in the first place! Insight can heal as well as grief.

But you can know until the cows come home. I knew, but I always pushed it aside, always displaced it. Ohhhh, here was everyone living life and I was being so spiritual and doing so much work on myself. Indeed I was. But I hurt nonetheless.

I remembered more pain. The soul-destroying, bone-crushing tiredness that was so real during those days. Just so…fucking…tired every single day. I just wanted to get up, eat, jerk off and then get back to bed. I didn’t feel that I could do anything. Everything was a struggle – to sing, to work, to even walk around some days. I had to rely on reserves of energy that I did not know I even had, just to make it through each day, only to come to another day which was no better (and often much worse) than the one before. There was no guarantee that things would ever get better, but still I forged on. But it HURT. All that time I had to see everyone around me moving forwards, leading their own lives.

I reflected on my family and why I stayed when the sensible thing would have been to leave. All the reasons paraded themselves in front me once more. It’s not that I wasn’t familiar with dysfunctional families besides mine and the scapegoats and savior complexes that were so common to them. Some families wanted someone to bring in the bacon, some to make peace, some to hold things together. Mine wanted me to do all that and more. But the thing was – I could. I was skilled and talented enough to fix the flaws, to save jobs, to raise kids, to make sure everything ran smoothly. I kept it going. But the cost! An entire life.

I’ve asked (and lambasted and castigated, courtesy of the critic) myself a thousand times why I stayed and took such punishment. Maybe because I really did love (and still love) my family. As with Singapore and many other things besides, I always took the hard path. There was still the young boy in me to whom family was everything and who just wanted everyone to love each other and get along. As well as the bitter and angry teenager who was willing to drown everything in fire and the wiser adult who knew that things could never go back to the way they were.

If I was to get really Asian here, my Zodiac sign is the Dog, and Dogs are supposed to safeguard and protect the family (something my maternal grandmother and mother told me more than a hundred times when I was younger) I believe that I carried out my duty too far and too well, but in between that stream of regret and recriminations there was a deeper sense of acceptance. If I could have left earlier I would have, but I could not, and so I did not. The enmeshment went far deeper than even my keenly honed knowledge and senses could penetrate, and there was nothing I could do about that. And so there was no need to blame myself or anyone else. I did love my family and they still loved me, however hard it was for them to express. Maybe that was reason enough.

But the memories continued. The years of telling myself “when things get better, I’m going to do this and that and that” the constant promises I made to myself that “one day, I’m going to make a movie/write a book/design a game/save the world” Then one day you wake up and you’re 33 and you realize you haven’t done any of it. When I let myself feel it for the first time, I mean REALLY feel it, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. Hard. I had to go lie down. And it got worse from there, before getting better.

In the writing I have remembered and recalled and recounted the truth – that it wasn’t that bad, it was worse. The years that were truly sacrificed in order to survive. The England trip, the second depression and OCD, my sister’s exams, being thrown out of the house…crisis after crisis after crisis, each as bad as or worse than the other. And all this time the wounds I suffered at twelve went deeper and deeper, still unhealed.

Time would not stay its cruel hand, and year by inexorable year passed. I sorrowed so deeply I felt I would fall apart. I cried again and again and then I cried some more. At times when it tore at my side like a flensing knife I would scream internally for it to stop, stop! Haven’t I already suffered enough! Why am I sorrowing over everything that I’ve lost AGAIN? Wasn’t once enough! Stop, I cried, like Shinji in the Dummy Plug System, unable to do anything but watch his friend die by his hand. But how do you stop something that has already happened?

All this time and what had I gained? Strength unending. But amidst all the ashes and rubble, that seemed like paltry recompense indeed. The money that my mother clung on to so much did not even begin to salvage the wreckage.

The grief was perhaps one of the final steps. It is all very well to be in the light, but one needs to get down and dirty and really FEEL the loss and the pain and the despair. Catharsis is a time-honored tradition (it comes from the Greeks so it’s pretty ancient) and it has been proven to work.

So I got REALLY down and REALLY dirty, to the extent of digging up all my old Sega Genesis game covers and looking at them. Whoa that hurt. Yeah, I probably overdid it again, but I have never been one to do things by halves. Why? I asked again and again. Why did these things that I so longed for, that I so wanted and desired, that I so – dare I say it – deserved, never come to pass? I read my old fanfiction, I went through some of my notes, I dove down deep into the past.

It was painful, but it was also healing. Like I said, grief IS the healing. The pain goes through you and you are a different person afterwards. It is not a place to stay in but to pass through, and to be whole, pass through you must.

I knew somewhere inside me before this whole thing started that actually…I had lost nothing at all. Nothing. As I told a friend many years before when he had to repeat a grade – then at least you have the experience of repeating a grade. What I had gained was beyond even what I so desired and had not gained. But in order to truly know that I had to grieve. I had to lose everything again.

Once again, my mom tried her best to fuck things up. One particularly violent episode ended up with me in a police station. Mum was called and she managed to provoke me, leading to a police officer slamming me into the wall (it’s not his fault, he was really scared) upon which I was somehow able to retain control and talk to him semi-calmly despite crying fit to wake the dead minutes earlier.

That’s some Martin Luther King levels of forgiveness right there. My sister was so worried I would need months of therapy afterwards but I was ok.

As the grief wound and wended its way through my body I came again to forgiveness, of myself, of everyone and everything else that made me this way. It was no one’s fault. Hard to acknowledge within all that sadness and anger, but true nonetheless. If I want to start blaming, then who do I start with? My grandparents? The Japanese soldiers who must have made their lives a living hell? World War Two? Adolf Hitler? (who reportedly was a victim of child abuse himself) I hated the Singaporean education system, yes, but what about the business practices of the US? The immigration policies of Australia? The xenophobia of Japan? The wars in Africa? The religious tensions in the Middle East?

As I said to Florence once, human sin is not bound by race or locale. If you seek to blame, you will find no end to sinners – since sinners we all are. Tsumi wo nikumu, tsumibito wo nikumazu. (Hate the sin, not the sinner.) All we can do is strive for good in the best way we can, strike down evil wherever it may arise, and then if and when we can, forgive.

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