A Death in the Family

My grandmother passed away last Wednesday. I stayed with her in the hospital a few times in the days leading up to her death , though she had been sick for awhile at that point. She had Parkinson’s disease. Over the last few years, she lost the ability to walk. Over the last couple of months, she lost the ability to breathe without the help of a machine. Despite this physical decay, I have a clear picture to remember her by from an earlier time in her life: when she raised me, protected me, and loved me unconditionally. 

My biological mother abused the heck out of me. She screamed at me for hours on end when I had done nothing wrong, no matter how much I cried or how much I begged her to stop. She told me that she would rather have a dead son than a gay son. She had wild mood swings in which she would sing happy songs at the top of her lungs one second, then lash out at me for not walking like a man or for getting an A- on an exam the next. Out of everyone in my family, my grandmother protected me from my mother the most. She and my grandfather lived with us, and she always held me and comforted me and told me that she loved me after each of my mom’s terrifying screaming sessions. In many ways, I considered my grandmother my actual mother, because she always gave me the warmth and caring I wanted, both in general and in response to my biological mother’s mistreatment.

While I feel sad about my grandmother’s death, I feel, for the most part, pure gratitude. Just as I did not choose to be born into a family with an extremely emotionally abusive mother and a neglectful father, I also did not choose to be born into a family with an endlessly nurturing and giving grandmother. Anyone who knows me knows that I care a lot about rejecting traditionally masculine norms of being unemotional, aggressive, focused on income over all else, etc. When I think about it, I have to thank my grandmother for giving me a safe, accepting space to explore my femininity and feminist identity. My biological mother always yelled at me when I showed emotions outside of anger or when I wanted to color my hair or walk with a bounce in my step. My grandmother encouraged me to explore what made me happy, society’s standards be damned.

Sometimes we have choices and sometimes we do not. I did not choose to be born into a family with my biological mother and father and grandmother, nor did I choose for my grandmother to pass away. However, I can choose to honor her legacy everyday by continuing to prioritize compassion over competitiveness, caring over cutthroat ambition, and emotions over hard logic. I selfishly focused this post on how my grandmother affected me, even though I know she showed love and forgiveness to so many people in her life – but she would have wanted me to be selfish, and I can choose to honor that wish, too. In a patriarchal society that encourages boys and men to prioritize our own gain over caring for others, I will my choose to nurture and heal, just as my grandmother did. I miss her, and I am so, so grateful to have had her.

pic of me and ba ngaoi 2017

A picture of my grandmother and I from about two years ago.

Thanks to the online community and readers of this blog for giving me a space to commemorate my grandmother! Would appreciate any insight on grieving a parent (or grandparent) as well as any reactions, feelings, thoughts, etc. that emerged when reading this post. Hope everyone is well, having a great holiday season, and ready for my next post in a few days.



Filed under Personal

25 responses to “A Death in the Family

  1. Gary Peetra

    I’m sorry to hear of your loss.

  2. I am sorry, Thomas. Although I know your words could never fully encapsulate who your grandmother was, she sounds like an amazing woman. I also know this because she raised you! Thank you for reminding me that we actually have more power over a situation then we think we do; our response to things make a difference too.

    • Thank you for your consistent compassion and thoughtfulness, Elayna. (: I agree about the importance of reminding ourselves of what we have control over in a situation even when it seems helpless. Going over to read your most recent post now!

  3. elaine leah


    Sorry isn’t enough to cover it, but I am so, so sorry for your loss. Your words here are evocative of a beautiful life, & your own life is a clear picture of the compassionate and loving woman she was, to have raised so compassionate and loving a person in you! Thank you for sharing her with us!

    As always, the only insights on grief I’ve got are ones I’ve learned through other people’s words, here are a few that have helped me, with the hope that they might also bring comfort to you:

    Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” and his “Sonnets to Orpheus 1.4” (https://onbeing.org/blog/go-limits-longing/) / (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjcG4aXNOCk)
    Aaron Freeman’s “You Want A Physicist To Speak At Your Funeral” (https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4675953)
    Yehuda Amichai’s “I Foretell the Days of Yore #6” (http://metaphorformetaphor.tumblr.com/post/111352261435/straight-from-the-fear-of-loss-i-plunged-into-the)
    Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods” and “Wild Geese”
    (http://www.phys.unm.edu/~tw/fas/yits/archive/oliver_inblackwaterwoods.html) / (http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/geese/geese.html)
    Bob Hicok’s “Elegy Owed” (http://poem-locker.tumblr.com/post/49517871326/bob-hicok-elegy-owed)
    Ocean Vuong’s “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/04/someday-ill-love-ocean-vuong)
    And, of course: Amy Hempel’s “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” (http://fictionaut.com/stories/amy-hempel/in-the-cemetery-where-al-jolson-is-buried.pdf)

    • Thank you so much for your thoughtful words and for sharing these resources, Elaine. (: I’ve read through a few of them now and appreciate your taste a lot (I’ve been meaning to pick up Ocean Vuong’s collection for awhile now, yay for gay Vietnamese representation!) Hope you’re doing well, writing-wise, personal-wise, etc.

  4. Kev

    Thomas, I am so sorry this happened to you. I really do understand your pain, and seeing someone you love so much is really difficult. 2017 has been the best and worst year of my life and I think you are so right when you talk about remembering and honouring the memory of when she was well. This post is a great tribute and I’m glad you had her in your life growing up. I feel like I have got to know you through the years through your posts so I was genuinely saddened by this. Feel free to reach out to me if you want to – I think you have me on Twitter. Stay strong xxx

    • Hi Kevin, I feel like you’ve genuinely gotten to know me as well throughout the years, and I am so thankful for your consistent kindness and thoughtfulness in all of your responses to my writing. It’s been great to see you grow as a writer and I am sorry to hear that 2017 has been the best and worst year of your life. Sending you strength and warmth and appreciation, as always ❤

  5. carleyschanck

    Your grandmother sounds awesome. I’m so glad you had her growing up, and that she showed you love and acceptance.
    For some reason, the part of your post that struck me the most was when you said “sometimes we have choices and sometimes we do not.” Owning the choices we do have in response to uncontrollable circumstances can be so empowering. Thank you for that reminder

  6. This post honors your grandmother well. I’m so sorry you lost her.

  7. This is beautiful. I am glad you had your grandma and you will have her in your heart for always; I love that you honour her for her role in helping you grow into the person you are now.

    I’m putting up a photo of a lit candle as my photo of the day tomorrow. It’s for anyone who it will help, and I hope it will comfort you. I’m also doing that because it’s the day my own grandma is being laid to rest. I’m glad that you had your lovely grandma and I am so sad for you having lost her. I can’t give you any advice as my grieving is very different from yours, but I send love and remind you that you know where I am, at the end of a Messenger messenge (!) if you need to talk.

    Take care.

    • Thank you so much, Liz! Both this meaningful comment and you putting up that photo mean a lot to me. I appreciate your solidarity and am sorry for your loss. Sending you much appreciation and love and friendship vibes.

  8. Patrick

    I too grew up in a household with an overbearing mother and neglectful father. When my last living grandparent died a few years ago, I was unable to attend the funeral since doing so would have meant asking my parents to pay for transportation and lodging, and they would have almost certainly seized the opportunity to resume emotionally manipulating me into being somebody that I am not. I think my grandmother would understand. We choose the people who matter to us most. Biology is only one small factor.

    • Love the line “we choose the people who matter to us most.” I am sure your grandmother would understand as well and would have wanted you to do what was best for you. I am sorry about how you grew up in a household with an overbearing mother and a neglectful father – and I am sending thoughts of warmth and solidarity your way.

  9. I am so very sorry, Thomas. To have lost that vibrant, comforting soul. But memory is our greatest possession, we can draw impossible strength in dire straights and come out on the other side by remembering someone like your gran. You already have that tucked away, yes?

    I lost my grandad three years ago this month, he was 73. A recovered alcoholic, he had both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and had suffered a few head injuries years prior to his passing. His last illness that took him saw seizures and his usual lack of recollection of them. It ripped my heart out to see him like that, that strong, laughing, passionate Shakespeare quoting man helpless like a small child, a featherless bird thrust into another second of living.

    I was with him the last night, as I usually am when he’s unwell. He slept on my bed or at least he tried, the spasms punctuated the night. I had the night-light on as I scribbled haikus at my desk periodically looking over my shoulder to see him smiling back at me with eyes speckled grey with age. Later that night, I caught him and we fell together on the kitchen floor. The day after he passed away.

    My one regret was that I was that I didn’t get to know him properly. The guy I knew was Grandad but I had only glimpses of the man his fellow officers dubbed “Spread-Joy” because that’s exactly what he did everywhere he went. My comfort was he was my grandfather, my friend, we bitched amiably about world politics (as he humorously mispronounced names) and talked about books and laughed together at dirty jokes.
    My greatest comfort, however, was that I read to him at the kitchen table hours before from a book of speeches I bought that very day. I read the entirety of Antony’s iconic oration from Shakespeare’s “Julius Ceaser”. Those same eyes lit up in the few hours of complete cognizance. I have the memory of the quiet happiness stamped in my brain. I keep it with me always.

    Denial is the first stage they say, and for me it was true but I skipped ahead to acceptance not very long after. I’m sorry for your loss is a perfectly acceptable statement of empathy but knowing what I know I will say my heart hurts for yours. Her’s is a loss like a scar tissue on your heart that has fortified it and has made you stronger and in turn, remember you have contributed to her happiness as well. I am certain she was proud of you, the person you’ve become.

    Like always Thomas, I hope you are well but especially now. I’m sending many armfuls of hugs and a whole lot of love your way.

    • Thank you so much for this thoughtful comment and for reading my writing with such empathy and compassion, Devina. I am sorry to hear about your grandfather’s passing and I appreciate your vulnerability in sharing that story with me, as I see many parallels with my grandmother’s passing. I hope we can both practice acceptance of their deaths while honoring whatever emotions come our way. I will definitely honor the memory of my grandmother as best I can and continue to hold her spirit dear to my heart. Sending lots of hugs and love back your way. (:

  10. We don’t know each other at all except for the fact that I love your blog and since I’m incredibly reclusive I couldn’t bring myself to start a conversation with you either but this time I thought I should say something. I remember reading your article “Unafraid” a couple of months because I stalked your blog (oops) and the abundant love and compassion your grandmother has for you and you for her is crystal clear. I’m sorry for the loss of such a valuable and warm person in your life, I know it is barely a comfort but I truly am. The pain of losing someone who has shaped you and made who you are is infinite and yet something you have to accept. You are a remarkably compassionate and thoughtful person and I hope you always remember how proud your grandmother was of you and how much she loved you.

    All my love and prayers for you. Don’t forget to take care of yourself

    • Wow, this comment actually took my breath away when I first read it, thank you so much for your kindness and for your courage in leaving a comment on this post. Knowing that there are people like yourself who read this blog but may not comment is incredibly motivating from writing perspective, and at the same time, I am just so grateful for your compassionate words in relation to my grandmother and my own journey to strive to be a compassionate person – to receive what you said knowing that you’ve read multiple of my posts is so encouraging. I hope you feel comfortable commenting in the future if you want to or just reading, and know that you’ve definitely made my day, week, year, etc. a little brighter with your comment. Hope you’re having a great night. ❤

  11. Thank you so much for sharing this heartfelt and thoughtful reflection of your time with your grandmother and the incredible person she was! You’re such a queen~

  12. Dhaval Mehta

    Deepest condolences on your loss, friend. As for me, I’ve been trying to come to terms with my own impending death recently and while I don’t have the master keys on helping you deal or cope, I can recommend one article that I keep going back to whenever I’m confused about life and how to live it to its fullest, basically an invitation to reconsider all and develop a new perspective on life itself – it’s pretty direct too http://www.shrimadrajchandramission.org/pujya-gurudevshri/pearls-of-wisdom/death-the-awakener-2110.htm

  13. Anna Ming

    Thomas, I am so sorry I am just reading this. I am sending you so much love and hope to catch up with you soon. The picture of you and your grandma is absolutely radiant… and so is your description of her. I remember you telling me about her years ago while walking across the terrace. My heart goes to the stars, and to you.

    I don’t know if you would like this poem, but I wanted to share it just in case it speaks to you:

    “In Blackwater Woods” by Mary Oliver

    Look, the trees
    are turning
    their own bodies
    into pillars

    of light,
    are giving off the rich
    fragrance of cinnamon
    and fulfillment,

    the long tapers
    of cattails
    are bursting and floating away over
    the blue shoulders

    of the ponds,
    and every pond,
    no matter what its
    name is, is

    nameless now.
    Every year
    I have ever learned

    in my lifetime
    leads back to this: the fires
    and the black river of loss
    whose other side

    is salvation,
    whose meaning
    none of us will ever know.
    To live in this world

    you must be able
    to do three things:
    to love what is mortal;
    to hold it

    against your bones knowing
    your own life depends on it;
    and, when the time comes to let it go,
    to let it go.

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