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Carrying on My Grandmother's Legacy into the New Year
How Grieving Her Death Led Me to Art-making
I've been thinking about the year ending. The year 2022. The year I feel as if it happened to me, upon me. A swamp in which I trudged to stay alive. The year started with the death of Thích Nhất Hạnh, a renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk called Thầy (master; teacher) by his followers. I read his books during the pandemic and reconsidered the meaning of life. I learned to accept suffering as a natural part of life and stay fully present instead of running away from it.
Thầy passed away on January 22. There was a week-long ceremony to commemorate his teaching and bid farewell. It was broadcasted worldwide, alternating days between the Plum Village Monastery in southern France and Từ Hiếu Temple in Vietnam. I watched Thầy’s funeral on my computer as the monks in bright orange robes carried his body from the temple to a crematory. The procession made me think of death and legacy once again.
In his teaching, Thầy claimed that we do not disappear upon death. We merely change forms, over and over, through birth, during life, and after death. People who have made the final transformation are still present wherever we intend to see them. There was nothing to be sad about Thầy’s death; it rather felt solemn. I took his death in such a stride that I deemed it as proof of my spiritual growth.
I heard the news of my maternal grandmother the morning after my birthday in February. I had just come back from a trip to New York City. My partner Chris, my mother, and my friend Heena organized a surprise party with our whole family for my 40th birthday. People who deeply cared about me gathered and wished me a life full of joy. My parents-in-law developed photos of me with family members and made a collage in a frame as large as a filing box. I was extremely grateful for these people.
My mother got the message of my grandmother’s death from her younger brother and forwarded it to our family group chat at night. I had known that it would happen in the near future, but I never knew exactly when that would be. My mental health got heavily disrupted. How strange! I had been praying that she would die for over three years. Death had finally spared her of all the sufferings she had endured.
Over the Thanksgiving break, some of my in-laws gathered at the family vacation house in a small rural town. Friday afternoon, we took a short hike and piled into a tiny movie theater at a plaza to watch the new Black Panther movie. I appreciated its beautiful artwork and strong female characters. What caught me off guard was the scene at the end: burning clothes to let go of the deceased. Tears clouded my eyes, and soon I started sobbing into my handkerchief. When the movie ended, my crying turned into a full-blown wail, echoing in the now-emptied theater.
Grief visits me like that. I thought I have been quite okay these days. I do not think of my grandmother all the time, only sometimes. When I think of her, I still feel all the emotions that I felt at the time of her death but at a much smaller magnitude. But like rain gathering on top of a big leaf, once it can’t hold the water any longer, it gushes out. Time for the cloud to shed its weight: it takes over with all its might.
When I heard the question “What are your three keywords from 2022?”, the first word that came to my mind was grief. It was not my first time grieving loss. After two of our family dogs died one after the other; I was saddened for a long time. The older one Kkami provided vital companionship when my family first moved to the United States. The younger one Ppoppi came into our life when I rescued him during a visit to Korea. Both dogs were irreplaceable parts of our family, yet we recovered over time, and when my parents got a new dog Ppomi (a blend of Ppoppi and Kkami), our hearts swelled with warmth again.
My grandmother was the first person close to me who died. It was quite different from losing companion animals. My emotions felt more complex and heavier. It seemed like the thick coat of grief would never get off my shoulders. All of a sudden, I could not write. I had been writing essays and poems regularly, but whenever I set down to write, my brain commanded me to get away from the desk. So I did. Instead, I started drawing, then tried making collages, crocheted stuffed dolls, and painted watercolors. When my head did not want to face the chaos of my heart, I turned to make art.
After breakfast, I was propelled to go upstairs to my room. My hands moved fast trying to realize what my head had envisioned. After an hour of art-making, I felt a release. I repeated this process day after day. Art-making has settled into my routine, and now I can’t imagine my life without it. On the list of descriptors of myself, now I can add “artist” to it. Previously occasional drawing or crocheting was my pastime activities; now, I am dedicated to growing my art career and using it to further my storytelling in addition to writing and podcasting. That is my grandmother’s legacy. In my art, words, and voice, she will keep living in a new form.
P.S. Grief does not go away naturally. People have different ways to process their grief, and many find comfort in talking about it and hearing others’ similar stories. I will continue to write about my vulnerable experiences including one with grief. Please share my newsletter with your family and friends who are having a hard time with their own grief.
I post some of my artwork on Instagram @KoreanLinda.
My podcast American K-sisters started its season 3 with episodes recorded in English. Check them out on your podcast platforms as well as Spotify and YouTube. All the links are listed here.