* In honor of my grandma, one of the greatest women in my life.
…a glorious reunion. Absolute giddiness accompanied with laughter, music, and dancing. His joy. His excitement. His strong longing for her, finally quenched as she runs into his arms. Finally. His daughter. In his arms.
…we can’t stop crying. Her six children, their spouses and her grandchildren double over with grief. Raw and uninhibited expressions of anguish fill the room as we desperately hold on to her rapidly cooling body.
Jung Sookhyun, 86, passed away in the presence of all her beloved children, as they were singing the last verse of the last hymn, in what turned out to be her last family service.
“Seize the day” is a mantra I practically worship and live by, while Death is a stranger to me. I am borderline obsessed about making most of the present, living in the present, and well, you know, about living. However, during the thirteen days I spent in Gwangju (located in the southern province of the ROK), following my grandma’s stroke, I had the special opportunity to associate with this stranger called Death.
Day after day, I sat by grandma in her comatose state. The formerly vibrant and healthy woman, lie unconscious in a hospital bed, unable to rid of her own phlegm that built up and blocked her airway passage. Every other hour a nurse had to insert a suction device deep into grandma’s throat. Then along with the obnoxious whirring of the device, phlegm that clogged grandma’s airway was vacuumed out, while grandma’s whole body would violently convulse in response to the machine. All we could do was clench grandma’s hand, while offering consoling words over the sound of the hateful whirring sound. We did this in hopes to soothe her and possibly to soothe ourselves. By the end of two weeks, grandma had literally waned to half her body mass. She was tiny.
During the two weeks, I personally came to a conclusion that intense pain is an inevitable element in death itself- no one can cheat it or beautify the pain. However, I also learned that as every single life is uniquely different, so is every single death.
Grandma’s death shared many similarities with grandma’s life in that it strengthened and vivified many of those in its presence.
Upon hearing the news of grandma’s stroke and heading to the hospital, I remember bracing myself for abysmal days filled with silent grieving and mourning. However, in grandma’s particular scenario of death, my initial fears were shattered, as I witnessed unbelievable hope and joy that coincided with the intense grief we experienced.
Though stricken with grief, amazingly, not one of her six (SIX!!!) children doubted that his/her mother would joyfully reunite with her heavenly Father upon her last breath. Amazingly, many of her children and grandchildren willingly put their lives on temporary hold in order to fly in from New Zealand, Canada, Indonesia, Jeju Island, and the US. Everyone flew in, eager to support and to be supported.Amazingly, every one of her kids and their spouses voluntarily took on the role of taking care of each other. In time of mental and emotional exhaustion, her offspring convened every night, late into the night, talking, joking, laughing, reminiscing, and drawing strength by being together. It was intense. There was intense sadness and intense joy- but that seemed like a natural mark of grandma. Afterall, grandma herself, was an intense passionate woman.
I cried a lot. I cried because she lay there so helpless in the white hospital bed, I cried because I was so helpless sitting next to her, I cried because I missed her voice, I cried for the hug I would never be able to receive from her, and the thought of her children having to say goodbye to her cracked my heart. However, much of my tears were also instigated by genuine joy and wonder at the rich legacy grandma left us- I found myself crying as I marveled over just how beautiful this woman was. Words cannot do justice to the richness that I experienced deep in my soul as we mournedtogether. Somehow, even through the ugly pain that acommpanies death, grandma supplied the family with hope and a bond that will hold us for many years to come.
I count back, from grandma’s stroke to her last breath. It was exactly thirteen days.
Grandma had long prayed that she live an exceptionally healthy life, then meet her death quickly and suddenly during slumber, so that her children would never be burdened to “look after” her. Grandma’s requests in death were granted to her. All but one detail: God granted thirteen days for the rest of us to say goodbye to her.
And I’m sure grandma is with him right now (probably hiking with him), nodding in agreement saying ‘yes, yes, I suppose your way was better than mine.’
HaYoung lives in Seoul (aka, Soul of Asia), currently trying to figure out the next step in her life. She recently interned at a human rights organization for refugees, taught English to (adorable) middle school students, and also got rejected from all the PhD programs she applied to. (Back to) job searching, being excited about the next step in life, and travelling to sunny Jeju Island in her near future.