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How to deal with death (Part 1)

A month before my mother died of cancer, my sister shot herself in the head. I am still here. Sometimes I don’t know why.

Step 1: Stay busy

Once a person dies, a number of things get set into motion. The “person” is suddenly the “body”. When my sister died, the body needed to be collected. The body needed to be identified. The body needed to be transported and cremated. When detective Bianchi called me, I was suddenly struck by how ghoulish it is to inform a person that his sister shot herself in the head, and then to immediately follow up with the mandate to see her mangled body… to confirm her identity.

Your sister is gone. The body must be identified.

But that is the favor. That is the blessing. Your emotional state is already arrested. I suspect most people cannot actually process the swirl of complex feelings and reactions uncorked by a loved one’s death. The emotional me was stunned. Numb. The detective was just ferrying me forward. Take this step. Make this decision. Have this conversation. Come here. Look at this. Sign this. The mental me had to make arrangements, find out who to contact and contact them. The mental me also had to keep managing my mother’s care, and be by her side in the hospice. Between the numbness and the flurry of tasks, there was no room for grief – no room to try to untangle the overwhelming swell in my heart.

After my mom passed a month later, there was a similar manic burst of action. Per Korean tradition, there were rooms to rent, garish flower arrangements to purchase, and buffet items to select. You can also spend a lot of money on an expertly crafted and ornately decorated box to be almost immediately incinerated. Then there is another expertly crafted and ornately decorated container that the ashes can be housed in. You can also rent a space to display the container. It’s not an accident that these selections exist. I was sleep deprived, emotionally bereft, and mentally drained by this stretch.

Then the end of life events trigger: bank accounts, outstanding bills, belongings… all of those things need to be tallied. The material sum of the person is calculated.

After the funerals, after the estates are settled, after other people’s lives resume, the numbness finally crept in. I could not feel anything. It was a peculiar state where I had no “want”. I didn’t care about anything, not even my own life. The thought crossed my mind many times that I might as well kill myself… living felt as meaningless as death, but I also could not muster the desire to make the effort. I just drifted around like a ghost for about a year. Just existing.

This is another reason why tasks are important, because that time still matters. Even though it seemed impossible to me at the time, the emotional me did return. I found desires again. I rediscovered care for myself and others. So it’s important to tell yourself to keep busy. Do things whether you feel like it or not. Simple repetitive tasks. Take a class. Focus on the job. So when your feelings recover, you will have moved forward cognitively as well.

Plus, I feel the momentum of giving myself my own structures and schedules did help me to recover emotionally as well. I don’t know if playing video games all day would have yielded the same emotional return, or if I just would have gotten lost in the numbness. Taking walks, meeting people, trying and failing at various business ideas eventually carried me forward.

Lost in a fog, just keep walking. Eventually, you’ll find your way out.

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