I take to writing when I need to get things out of my head. The following events occurred over the past week.
Have you ever been to a Chinese funeral or a memorial service? I have not.
Custom states that when a death occurs in a Chinese family, all statues of deities in the house are covered in red paper and all mirrors are removed from the house. Joss paper is burned continuously throughout the wake. Funeral guests are required to light incense. During the wake, there is usually a group of people gambling in front of the deceased’s house because the corpse must be guarded. The gambling helps the “guards” stay awake during this vigil and lessens the grief of the participants. After the funeral, prayers are said every 7 - 10 days for 49 days. A period of mourning is generally 100 days, for which family members wear a specific colored cloth on their sleeve.
The Chinese believe that seven days after the death of a loved one, the soul of the departed will return to their home. A red plaque may be placed outside the home to insure the soul does not get lost.
I have been so angry and confused for the past week.
People handle things in such varied and different ways. Over Christmas break, my dad and I were having a conversation about pain. He told me that you can never compare how you feel pain with how someone else feels pain. We were talking about being sick with the flu or having a cold, but that bit of advice goes such a long way.
My best friend and the person I had been dating for the past 8 months, Ben, committed suicide last weekend. That’s the hardest sentence to type. Part of me feels like that is no one’s business except for his family and friends. But part of me feels like it’s important to say or type out, as a way of coming to terms with it.
Suicide sucks. I don’t think there is anyone on the planet who might think differently when it comes to that statement.
Ben was a great person. He liked to build things and write things and cook things. He kept a blog of poems and stories he wrote on Tumblr. And we had a notebook that we would mail back and forth to each other, filling it with letters and stories and drawings. I would send him things from Singapore and he would send me things from Texas. It was a magical exchange that I will treasure forever.
I went to Dallas and Nashville and Baltimore for my Christmas break. We met up in Dallas and it was truly amazing. We had a great time together—it was like no time had passed and we were no longer living millions of miles apart. I got to meet his parents and learn about him by spending actual time with him. He flew to Nashville for New Year’s Eve, and the magic continued. We cooked meals together and went on walks. We took long drives out in the country and hung out with my nephews. I showed him around Nashville and we had an incredible steak dinner.
While I was in Baltimore for my winter session of graduate school, we Skyped every day. We were together.
We met in second grade. Upon our reconnection, he contacted me via Facebook. I remember telling him that all I could think of when we were messaging was that he was this kid that my second grade teacher held by the ankles upside-down in front of the class because he had swallowed something. She just kind of shook him about. We laughed.
We began talking daily. Soon after, I started remembering all sorts of things about him. Specifically things from high school. He loved talking about high school. Retelling stories about his friends, talking about parties he went to, traveling down memory lane. I—on the other hand—did not. I wasn’t really present in high school, nor was I fond of where I grew up. But we continued talking. It was interesting to relive high school through his memories.
We Skyped, texted, messaged, and emailed about everything. I was in Singapore, he was in the States. Ben was in a tough place. But he was positive and making some really amazing progress. He was the strongest person I knew, and I was so proud to know him.
His mother contacted me about 20 minutes before my first class was to arrive for their art lesson. It’s amazing how our brains work. I compartmentalized the news she gave me and taught my classes for the day. That night, my friend and neighbor art teacher K came over and we went to dinner. Nothing fancy. We went to KFC because nothing else was available at the time. I hadn’t eaten KFC since I was in high school, so it seemed oddly appropriate. I was thankful for her company and the distraction it provided me. I got home in time to Skype with a graduate school buddy, S. She was understanding and did not make a big deal out of the news when I told her. I needed that. I needed the calm.
The next day, I woke up at 2am and read the news about his upcoming memorial service on Facebook. I stayed awake thinking about things. I thought about his friends from high school, who were also my friends at that time. We didn’t really hang out, but we had all grown up together and managed in some way or another to stay in touch through various social media outlets. I thought about his parents. I thought about his brothers and sister, and his two beautiful sons. I went to school, spoke to the school counselor about everything that was going on, taught my classes, and then spent the evening at my friend S and J’s house.
S and J hosted my 40th birthday party at their apartment. They are awesome, passionate friends of mine that I have been so incredibly blessed to meet, here in Singapore. S is such a great person to talk to about Ben. I started to express anger a bit about the situation, asking unanswerable questions. Why didn’t he contact me? Why didn’t anyone tell me that he had taken a turn for the worse? Why did he shut me out? Why, why, why? She kept it real. She basically told me not to go down that path. She’s not a sugar-coater, but at the same time she gave me hugs and patted my arm when I started to talk nonsensicals. I walked home from her house on the damp, fresh from rain streets of Little India. I thought about Ben the entire time, specifically his facial expressions and how--when I looked at him--I could no longer see the little boy with white/blonde hair that was held upside down by our teacher.
I woke up the next day at 2am again. This time I tried to figure out what stage of grief I was in. I thought it would help if I could look at this process practically. I decided I was still firmly planted in anger, but on the cusp of bargaining. I thought about all of the unanswered questions I had. I started thinking not very nice things. I kept whispering over and over again, as I laid in bed: “This is what you wanted: attention, people adoring you, support, immeasurable love.”
He had all of those things, but he wouldn’t take notice of them. Or it wasn’t enough. Nothing was ever enough. I was angry.
Here are the 5 stages of grief:
I believe in angels and spirits. Every time someone close to me has died, they have always come back to say hello or comfort me in some way. My 3 grandparents and my friend, Pat. My experience with Pat’s spirit was by far the most phenomenal experience. After Pat’s funeral, I was flying back to Austin, and this whoosh of his spirit rushed over me—like a hug—when the plane took off. I knew it was him, because I could so very plainly see his face.
I know that sounds crazy. But it’s my way of dealing with things, so leave me be.
The last day of the week was extremely busy. For once I slept through the night. I was co-running workshops for a middle school conference while trying to attend a day of professional development. I was in better spirits. I attribute this to the interesting happenings from the day before, and that I was surrounded by awesome students and supportive teachers all day long. I also received a job offer via email. (Yay!) After our work at the conference was complete, my friend S drove me to the Tanglin Club for dinner, drinks, and relaxation. We sat outside by the pool and watched families and kids for about 3 hours. She convinced me to attend Holi with several friends on Sunday.
Saturday was another conference day. I slept through the night again. Only this time, something new happened: I woke up crying. I laid in bed thinking about how no one would ever see Ben again. It was heartbreaking. He was a really good person. He just had some big hills to get over. Why was I so far away in Singapore? Why couldn’t we help him get over these hills? Where had the hold up been? How could he have lasted as long as he did and just now give up? Why didn’t he reach out to me? Why didn’t he reach out to me? WHY DIDN’T HE REACH OUT TO ME?
I went to day two of the middle school conference. I spoke with teacher friends about whether they thought I should go to the memorial service or not, and how hard it must be to write an obituary. I even had my friend S try and describe me in 3 words. She could only come up with two: crazy and creative. I came home, sent off another cover letter, and returned emails. Then I slept.
I woke up from my nap crying again. I’ve been watching TED talks about suicide and life choices. Again: I'm trying to experience things from a practical place instead of an emotional place. I call this research, and it’s definitely part of my grief process.
Tonight I will Skype with my friend D. She went to elementary school with Ben. And I also met D for the first time in second grade. We’ve known each other for 33 years. She is the support I need now, and I’m so incredibly thankful for her.
Tomorrow is Sunday. Tomorrow is Holi: the celebration of spring.
Sunday was Ben’s favorite day. He was the only person that I willingly agreed to go to church with.
Rest in peace, my sweet man.
- denial and isolation