The first time I encountered death was when my seven-year-old cousin died. Her death was meaningless to me because I was only 4 years old and I only cared about collecting candy and sunflower seeds at the dinner after the funeral. The second time and third time that I encountered death were still meaningless to me because I was still young and they were when my grandparents died. Since they were already in their 70s and 80s, death was an immediate expectation so their passing had little emotional impact on me. The first time when death had a meaning to me was when I was in high school and a classmate of mine, Kevin, unexpectedly passed away during an annual school trip to visit colleges. We remembered that he looked tense throughout the trip and frequently used the restroom. He said he had a cold. When we were sitting in a classroom listening to the college admission officer’s presentation, an ambulance arrived. Then the next thing I knew, we were on the bus ride back to our high school. During the long bus ride, we were not told why our trip was cut short. As soon as we all gathered in our school’s auditorium, all 250 of us who were about to apply to college the following year, were told that Kevin would not be going to college; he had passed away.
At Kevin’s wake, my friends and I could not even see what was in front of us as we sat down in the rows of seats and wept. We would cry for about ten minutes, rest, and then cry again. We did this repetitively because we felt that we were never “done” mourning. We all bawled, even the boys, who were going through puberty and wanted to be cool and bawling in public was not cool. Kevin’s mom would get up from her seat to greet the guests. With the arrival of new guests, she would be reminded of the painful truth and begin weeping. She would take a break and begin crying again. She kept saying to Kevin as if he could hear her, “Kevin, get up. You told mommy that you were just going to visit the colleges and you would come back. Get up Kevin. Get up Kevin.” Our tears busted out of our eyes as if they were water molecules massive enough to fill a swimming pool but trapped in a bottle of soda.
After the wake, we wiped our tears and congregated outside the funeral home. We started joking about how we would have to go home and immediately wash our clothes because “negative spirits” filled them (a Chinese superstition). None of us talked about how we felt. We did not talk about Kevin. It was probably because most of us never went to a funeral for someone not expected to die and for someone that we knew so personally. We were young and did not know what the proper etiquette was, if there even was one.
Should we have talked about Kevin? Should we have shared our feelings? Should we have shared whatever memory it was that we had with Kevin? We did not know. I did not know. I think I just wanted to go home and forget about the sadness that we just went through. And so when I arrived home and my mom asked me how it “went,” I told her nonchalantly what Kevin’s mother said. She said she wanted to cry too hearing that but I just proceeded to set my alarm clock for the next day and acted as if attending the funeral was like watching a movie and the movie was over.
Between that year and now, my high school friends and I would rarely bring up Kevin. Even if we did, it was a non-emotional statement, which consisted only of one or two sentences. We seem to have forgotten him. Or we just choose not to talk about him anymore because it was a sad memory. I seldom bring up topics about dead people who were close to me because I don’t want to be reminded of the painful departing, especially in instances when the death was unexpected. I don’t want to be reminded of how heartbreaking it was to hear what his mother said during his wake, how helpless and tormented she was. I wanted to forget that death existed and the fact that it could happen to any one of my close friends.
Four years later, I was reminded again, of how it felt to lose a friend of mine, unexpectedly. In April of 2006, my college friend, Wei Wei, passed away from a car accident near my college campus. My friends and I drove from Pittsburgh to New York to attend her wake, where her hometown was. Because some of Wei Wei’s friends had graduated from college already, I received a couple of phone calls and emails from friends who could not physically express their condolences and to let me know that they are there for me if I ever wanted to talk.
Prior to her memorial service in New York, our college held a meeting on campus where people gathered with a counselor who encouraged us to share thoughts, feelings, or anything we wanted to Wei Wei. And people did.
At the wake, my friends and I performed as a loud, live orchestra. All you heard was people bawling. Again, we couldn’t even see what was in front of us because our tears covered our pupils so rapidly. This time it felt different because while I had a closer relationship with Wei Wei than I did with Kevin, I felt that I could share whatever I was feeling with my other friends because we talked about the various memories we had with her. This time, I witnessed another mother’s broken heart over her daughter who didn’t even reach her twentieth birthday. She said everything felt like a dream and that she doesn’t believe this was really happening.
The next day was a service when we shared any thoughts about Wei Wei. It was a less overwhelming experience because we weren’t all crying and bawling. We were remembering her. Wei Wei’s body wasn’t at the service like it was the day before, where she was just lying in front of the room, not moving, not feeling, and not knowing that we were there.
After the service, we all went to eat. None of us talked about Wei Wei. Some of us joked about things happening in our lives and what they were going to do next week. It didn’t feel like we had just came back from a funeral service and it didn’t feel like a good friend of ours passed away. It might have been because we were done mourning and didn’t want to dwell on negative emotions.
My friends and I still mention Wei Wei from time to time but not very often because she’s no longer with us so we don’t have anything new to share about her. On her twentieth birthday, had she survived, and on the anniversary date of when she passed away, some of us brought flowers and put them where her accident was or gave a shout out to her on xanga (the then popular version of facebook). But slowly, over the years, we talked about her less and less. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve forgotten about her. I shouldn’t speak for others. But, I know that I at least sometimes forget about her but would be reminded of her through random stumbles. For instance, like seeing an Asian cheerleader because she loved dancing and was a cheerleader in high school and in college. I knew though that if I ever wanted to talk to someone about her or about my feelings, that there were plenty of people to talk to.
Slowly over the years, my friends and I talked about her less and less. I mean what were we really going to say, “So last month I had coffee with Wei Wei, and she told me about her new job”? That wasn’t possible because she was no longer a part of our ongoing lives. She was gone. I don’t know where she is. I can’t even go to her xanga or facebook to see what she wrote about, what she felt during certain times of her live because her social medias were shut down after she passed away.
A while back, my self-proclaimed godsister, Dee Hsu, who hosts the Taiwanese talk show “Kang Xi Lai Le,” said something about death that was cut and posted on YouTube. She started crying after a singer sang a song written by one of her friends, who died in his early 20s. She said the song reminded her of him because he wrote it and he acted in the music video. And every time she goes karaoke, she’d select the MV, which he is in.
Her co-host asked, “Then wouldn’t that make you sadder?”
Dee said, “Yes but after people die, I don’t want to be afraid of getting sad that I avoid things that remind me of them. I wanna think about them from time to time so that way when they’re up there, they don’t think that I’ve forgotten about them.”
About 372 people liked this specific comment. I think it’s probably because a lot of us don’t know what to “do” after we’re done mourning or we do know what to “do” but are afraid of being said again.
My memory of my friends who passed away is fading away throughout the years but I just want to let them know that I haven’t forgotten about them. And if I do die before any of my friends do, I hope they will not forget about me and think about me from time to time.