Growing up, my dad’s cousin, his wife and their daughter were the only family we had in Canberra. We only caught up with them once or twice a year, typically at a restaurant for Chinese New Year. I cherished those occasions?and not only because they were bookended by two of my favourite pancakes, commencing with Peking duck pancakes and concluding with red bean paste pancakes.
They (the family, not the pancakes) were very dear to us, to me. When Uncle Patrick passed suddenly, it was the first funeral I attended where I cried. I think we all cried. At his daughter’s wedding some years later, I felt his absence threaded throughout the joy of the occasion.
His death was probably my first conventional experience of grief.
When we were kids we visited my maternal grandfather’s grave in a Kuala Lumpur cemetery, and I kind of tried to feel the gravity of the occasion. For two decades, a black and white portrait of Ah Gung hung in the family home, like a ghost haunting the living room. But I didn’t really know him, he died when I was two.
When my maternal grandmother passed away last year, a few days after my wedding, we were already separated by language before we were ever separated by borders and a pandemic. I felt a sadness that I would never see her again, as well as a quiet confidence that she had lived a long life and was going to Jesus, and no small joy that I had had the pleasure of knowing her.
Only in recent years have I heard the word grief used in relation to things other than the sadness you feel when someone dies.
After my sister got married, I wrote “Reconfiguring Home: Weddings and Earthquakes”. I didn’t use the word grief at all, but that’s what it was. I was unequivocally happy for her while simultaneously mourning the end of an era in which we lived together and were the best of friends.
Because even though the new was good, the old had been good, too.
When I was preparing to get married, my pastor mentioned grieving singleness. He didn’t have to elaborate because I knew exactly what he meant. The mere fact that he had used the language of grief as a legitimate word and a legitimate feeling to have on the eve of “the best day of my life” was liberating and a balm to my soul.
I wrote “Does he love you for who you are?” about some of those feelings and struggles. Again, I did not use the word grief, but that’s what it was. I was unequivocally happy to be starting life together with the Best Guy Ever, but I was deeply and strangely conscious of all the doors I was closing in the process, all the things that would never again be as they once were.
Because even though the new was good, the old had been good, too.
And that’s why these everyday, miscellaneous griefs (like briefs, or should it be grieves like thieves?) are so strangely paradoxical. There is a pain laced through the joy. I can feel a shame about that pain?perhaps because the overly simplistic part of me thinks no pain can co-exist with a joyful situation. But it can and it does. Life is complex and non-binary like that.
I now know that re-entry?coming home from abroad and the reverse culture shock that accompanies it?is a cocktail in which grief is a key ingredient. I didn’t have the word for it at the time.
It’s been more than 11 years since I first set foot in the Andes. It’s been eight years since my feet left Andean soil.
I know in my mind that there were difficult, unpleasant things from that time in my life. I still remember how hard it was to come home. I still get wanderlust from time to time. But over the years that has ossified into a beautiful nostalgia.
Because even though there was some bad in the old, it was mostly good, wasn’t it?
Life is change, and grief, then, is a natural outcome of change. The fact that we call anything a loss means that it was good. We had something good. That in and of itself is a blessing worth pausing to appreciate, to relish.
Things that were never ours to have
Can we experience grief for something we never had, the good taken from us before we were even able to enjoy it? Are broken dreams the same as grief? After all, we can have and lose a dream.
I don’t know if there is an answer to this, if all loss is grief, but it is this question that formed the seed for what you’re reading now.
What about all the things we dreamed we would be when we were kids? When we got married?
In the first 16 months of our marriage, my husband and I have mourned the way our life together began. Our COVID-ridden wedding and honeymoon was the least of it. But more than these are all the things we thought we would do in our first years of married life and haven’t been able to, for reasons outside of our control.
Nostalgia and now
I like to think grief evolves into nostalgia, like a Pokemon of emotions. Nostalgia is one of my favourite phenomena. It’s delicious. For me, nostalgia seeps in after the grief has dulled (or perhaps grief, rather than becoming bland, sweetens like a ripening tomato?).
Nostalgia makes the past rosy, artificially so. Maybe it is a form of self delusion: we have remembered the good, and as for the bad … well, perhaps we’ve accepted it and moved on, but more likely we have relegated it to forgetting or inconsequence.
I hope we don’t have to wait for the present to be past to know that even though some things are bad right now, some things are really good, too. I write this with a heart that is simultaneously heavy and buoyant.
We will survive our present struggles and know that there was a whole lot of good, even amidst the bad and the ugly. In a few years time, I know that beautiful Pokemon await us.
Header image by Alexander Grey.
6 thoughts on “Miscellaneous shades of grief”
Mm so much truth in your ponderings. I think my most recent experience of unexpected grief was the past month or two. Becoming a mum has changed so much of who I am and what I can currently do, and yet I still yearn to be who I was before pregnancy and birth. I’m sure there’s a blending of the two (pre- and post-baby me) and perhaps that’s still in the works, but it most definitely has been a form of grief.
Thank you for your words as always 🙂
Yes, I do think there was a lot of this (or at least similar) sentiment threaded through your post, which I loved 🙂 It’s weird we think of our younger selves as separate entities, but obviously it’s not as clear cut as that – it’s really a metaphorical way of understanding how we grow and change as people.
Thanks for stopping by to read and sit in these thoughts with me. Looking forward to your next post!
Thank you for this lovely and well written article. Remembering the good times and the bad times, trusting that God is in control and to rejoice always.
Amen to this!! Thankfully, though I’ve always been quite philosophical about good times/bad times, I definitely feel more free to rejoice in every circumstance these days than I maybe have in the past.
Love reading your beautiful and thoughtful posts
Thank you! Hope you are well and hope to run into you at Northside one of these Sundays 🙂