Category Archives: death

On a Friend Dying

Mother Too

A friend of mine died recently. A few years ago, he came out with his HIV diagnosis… then a few days later, he confessed his love for me. I’m a cis gender male. He knew this. But it was something he just needed to simply get off his chest. He wasn’t asking for anything, nor was I expected to do anything about it but listen. In the spirit of confessing his health crisis at the time, I suppose it was time for him to come out with his feelings as well.

That was a healthy thing to do.

If you love someone, regardless of what the circumstances are, tell them. It doesn’t have to be reciprocated. We’re all grown-ups, and love doesn’t work that way. In any case, just tell them. Best case scenario, such feelings might eventually be reciprocated. At the very least, it tells that person that whatever they’re doing, they must be doing something right since someone loves or admires them.

This was a good lesson that he demonstrated. He also showed that a good life is possible despite a dire reality. The looming shadow of a grim health diagnosis can be very difficult to get over, but as he later moved on to a simpler life, he appeared happy… I’d say even much happier at times compared to when I used to hang out with him. Maybe it’s because he was more honest with things. Maybe it’s because he was closer to his family at the time. Who knows? But I noticed that after his diagnosis, he seemed more upbeat, or at least more fulfilled with what I would’ve foolishly judged as a simpler, slower existence at the time.

Rest well, buddy. It was good knowing you. I wish I was a much better friend, however. I guess now you’ll know the ultimate truth about your online “prison skanks.”

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Soon to be Deleted

Chest_Pain

I’m trying my hardest not to write anything about depression at the moment. Unfortunately, listening to Elliott Smith, Sparklehorse, and old episodes of Dopey, there’s really not much that comes to mind.

One thing that keeps coming back to my head however are suicide scenes they sometimes broadcast here on television. In Korea, it’s common for people to just lock themselves in a car and burn something in order to die from asphyxiation. Afterwards in the news, you might see cigarette butts and bottles of liquor unblurred as the camera explores the car. I’ve been wondering why you don’t often see food in these scenes. Of course it might seem pointless to be eating food as you try to end your life, but I figure eating is probably one of the most distracting and pleasurable thing to do as you await your death in a sealed room or vehicle. With me, they’d probably find my sad body with bucket of KFC chicken nearby. It’s very difficult to think of anything, much less smell faint, toxic fumes, as I soothe my depression with greasy bites of chicken. So yeah, if you see me checking in a hotel alone with big bucket of chicken, call 911. You just might save my life.

If I was to give some advice though, other than seek help if you’re depressed or thinking about suicide, is that people should never look up suicide scenes online. I looked up suicide scenes online checking for food (we live in a frivolous era) and stumbled on the darkest, most depressing scenes of the human condition. Alan Black’s ‘Faces of Death’ didn’t prepare me for this. Most of the scenes, usually from what appear to be educational presentations, and they look like they are from developing or Eastern European countries, and without much context, I began to build stories explaining the scenes. It’s a rather grim exercise. Save yourself the misery and watch highlights of Pawn Stars instead.

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A Grim Trend

Fish Folk.jpg

There seems to be an awful lot of death around me lately. Last November, my grandmother passed away. I had to fly to the States for a bit of a memorial gathering. I haven’t seen my grandmother for many years prior to her passing, and in at least a couple of scares, our family had to mentally prepare ourselves for her passing. And when she finally passed away, it was more like seeing the long inevitable, acting in a scene long rehearsed.

Not long after, my godfather passed away. I don’t have much of a relationship with him, but he was close with my father and I do love my cousins. His health has been in a decline for many years now. And while it was a surprise for me that he passed away, I had a feeling that it was to be expected. He wasn’t getting any healthier. A few weeks after his passing, another uncle passed away. Like my godfather, his health was in a decline as well. It’s a bit of a coincidence that he was really close with my godfather and that they both died within weeks of each other’s passing. It’s almost like what they say about old couples dying.

Just now, my landlord just passed away. He’s not a relative, but being my landlord, he’s physically the one closest to me. His death hasn’t hit me as much as my grandmother’s death did, but the fact that I just saw him smiling with his family gathered all around him on a Sunday afternoon a few days ago makes me feel really uneasy. He was a good guy who was kind and generous enough to let me stay at his place for so many years even though he wasn’t particularly fond of the way I decorated and furnished my apartment. I just hope he makes a straight beeline to heaven and not linger around to make his complaints about my living space known.

Oddly enough, we are planning to move to a different place sometime this year. Having my good landlord finally pass away seems to make that decision even more pertinent. Here’s hoping we find a reasonable place in this currently ridiculous Seoul real estate market.

I don’t know if there’s really a point to my writing this week. There have been a lot of people dying lately. It feels quite uneasy.  I really would like to shake it off.

Be kind to people while they are still around. One of my biggest regret in life is not being there with my mother in her last years. I could’ve found another job. I could’ve made arrangements around my life to make it possible for me to be there with her, but I didn’t. I was lazy, unimaginative, selfish, and unkind. I kinda shut it all out. I pretended everything was going to be fine, and in the process, I missed out on so much from a woman who was nothing but a saint to everyone in the family. Be kind to people while they around, because when they’re gone, you might end up writing blog entries about it repeatedly and getting reminded of your mistakes every time another person dies.

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On Korean Funerals and Being an Outsider

Morton Salt Girl

My wife’s grandmother passed away last Monday. It was a very sad occasion but not unexpected. She hasn’t been living well for two years now. But I guess that’s the hallmark of a good long life, to die and have people remark “Well, we were expecting it. She was old and at least now she’s at peace,” instead of “What!? How did she die?”

The funeral was very traditional, even by Korean standards. My wife and even my co-workers say they just don’t bury people that way anymore. It felt both like a privilege and me intruding (I’ll explain this more later). I knew I was watching something that’s no longer done and probably would no longer be done in the future. And it was also extraordinary that I was pushed to participating into many aspects of it, even carrying the casket and lowering the body. It’s a bit morbid, but I was reluctantly grateful for it.

Several things marred the experience for me though. One was the almost mandatory inclusion of heavy drinking. I understand drinking in a funeral, but at some point it turns less into a funeral and more into just a regular drinking session with Koreans, complete with the ugliness of hierarchies in such occasions. I was particularly annoyed at one of my wife’s relatives “testing” me and my brother-in-laws to see if we were fit to either be part of the family or be married to our wives. We’ve all been married to our wives for years, and the man was basically a stranger to me. He won’t be there when our marriages run into a trouble whatsoever, but yet he gets to lord over everyone in the table. Why? Korean culture. Perhaps it was all coming from a good place, but it felt quite obnoxious at some point. And no it wasn’t happening because I was a foreigner. My brothers-in-law had to tolerate some abuse too. But it does nothing but alienate people or make them feel like they don’t belong in the table. I said so that night myself. Being in that table, while it makes me feel like I’m family for whatever that is worth, it makes me feel small and that I have to constantly prove to others that I belong.

Being a foreigner, I tend to be a target for people who are not quite used to seeing foreigners. This is why I’m sometimes not particularly excited to be in the countryside. One drunk grave digger who probably never saw a foreigner before in his life started yelling incoherently at me and was bragging that he can speak seven languages. And yet he does not understand a word of English. I suppose he’s a genius with languages who just happens to dig graves as a hobby. And I was the idiot who had to tolerate his nonsense and not punch him out. I was warned not the engage him, which was smart, but then again, why was I the target of his abuse in the first place?

Again, I can’t help but feel it’s because I’m the other. I’m a foreigner. As welcoming as many of my Korean relatives can be, it can sometimes only take a few handful of events before I start feeling like the “other,” like I’m the dancing bear. Perhaps I’m being too sensitive, but I don’t really complain about it in real life. I just keep things bottled up inside and write about it here where no one would read it. But it’s that feeling of being an “other” that makes me feel like I’m intruding in the funeral in the first place. Last Wednesday, we buried a wonderful woman who had a great life and whose selflessness has touched the lives of so many people in her family. There must be other people worthier than me, someone who actually feels comfortable to be there and fits in, to be part of the group that lays her body to her final resting place.

On a rather sweet note, I remember one time, back when my wife’s grandmother was healthier, we we’re all spending Korean thanksgiving together. For a brief moment, it was just me, her, and my older brother-in-law in the living. I think at some point, she started feeling bad for me, wondering why I wasn’t spending Korean thanksgiving with my parents. She asked why I don’t take my wife to my family and have her help my mom with thanksgiving preparations (as is the tradition in Korea). I told her that my mom passed away and my family was not in the country.

My brother-in-law was more direct, “He’s a foreigner. He’s not Korean.”

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Space Death

Woman

Jumping from a building to your death is probably the most basic ways people can kill themselves. With enough height, forget the cracking of bones, the exploding of skulls, and the damage done to tissue upon impact. Forget all of that. Those are minor things compared to the grandeur at play. It is the collision of a human body with planetary forces. This is a person being killed by physics. Just as we are all ultimately born from the remnants of ancient dead stars, this is a planet ultimately killing a person. Just as a little bit of sunlight doesn’t usually hurt people but it will kill a person if they manage to fly out into space and come close enough to the sun, so too would the Earth’s gravity kill a person should they decide to embrace it freely from a distance of over ten floors. It is space death without the spaceship. Imagine floating in space and colliding with a wayward asteroid. But with jumping off a building, you are colliding with a planet populated by people you couldn’t care less about anymore. Your horizon is now shifted by 90 degrees, and it is the weight of the Earth slamming on you, with all its continents, mountains, forests and seas. All of the Earth’s trees, creatures, and secrets crush you as the planet’s gravitational pull over you infinitely overwhelm your own gravitational pull towards the planet. It’s like a heroic death envisioned by Ray Bradbury. When people get hit by vehicles, people would describe it as such. Greg got hit by a bus. Susan was crushed by a train. But with jumping off buildings, “Joe slammed into the planet Earth.” It just sounds more epic. Should I jump to my death, I think it would only be fitting to wear a spacesuit. Maybe wear a blindfold to emulate the darkness of space, drink tons of alcohol to get courage and emulate space sickness, and wear earphones to listen to some music and drown out the outside noise. Astronauts listen to music, don’t they?

The only thing I could think of that would be more primordial would be breathing in helium, one of the early gases in the universe. The problem with this however is that setting up a helium bubble takes a lot of human aspect and design to make it happen. It’s not very primordial, is it? Also, most helium distributors now sell canisters with enough oxygen in them to make sure they cannot be used for probably one of the most comfortable ways to commit suicide. I’d call these companies killjoys, but that term doesn’t really make much sense in this scenario.

Despite the rather grim entries these past few days though, I am not seriously thinking of killing myself. I feel like that is something that has to be said. It is weird how talking about suicide always has to be prefaced by saying, “I’m not thinking of killing myself, but…” And even if you mentioned that, regardless of how explicit your warning is or how happy you appear to be, people will always be thinking that you’re suicidal or depressed to some degree. It’s like saying, “I’m not racist, but…” You will always sound racist no matter what you say to finish that sentence. Some bigoted commentary and suicidal musings cannot be uttered without being thought of as being a bigot or suicidal. Anyway, I’m not suicidal, but I’ve been thinking a lot about jumping off tall buildings lately, that and dying in space.

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Forgetting Me

Rabbit Headlights

After the last couple of days, I now believe that the animated movie ‘Coco’ was teaching a bad lesson. It had great things to say about family, but the part about remembering dead relatives is a tad misguided.  The lesson needed tempering. Sure, it is only natural to remember our loved ones long before they’re gone, maybe even learn some lessons about their lives especially if they’ve made a significant impact to their families or the larger community while they were alive. But outside of that, I’m not sure if it really benefits the dead in the most pragmatic sense.

It has been a very rough recently around me. People have been dealing with health issues, with some having the possibility of passing in a few days or so. With this rather depressing mood, I’ve been thinking how things truly are for the dead once they have passed. Life does not stop. And I believe we sometimes overvalue our impact in other people’s lives, which is part of the reason why we fear death. What about my wife? What about my family?

They will all eventually move on.

If there’s one valuable thing that Facebook has taught people is that people do eventually get over you. People move one after a person’s metaphorical “death” in their lives. Our old classmates, co-workers, and exes have fulfilling lives without us. They move on and we become strangers to them, as much as they probably become strangers to us. “Boy, he’s gained weight since I last saw him.” “Oh wow, she’s got kids now.” Life does not stop. We might not have died, but we might as well have because they wouldn’t really know at this point if we did. And I’m not really sure if it benefits me if any of these people from an earlier part of my life, as wonderful as they are, remembers me. A part of me thinks wanting people to remember you is a tad arrogant.

If my church teachings are to be believed, the secrets of the universe will be unveiled to you right after you die. Your plate is full right after you die. You’ve got the whole world and beyond to know and experience. Do you really want others to suffer long after you’re gone? Do their remembrances and broken hearts make the secrets of the universe that more appealing? Wouldn’t time at that point be meaningless and we’ll eventually see all of our living relatives in what is equivalent to a millisecond?

One of the reasons why I don’t have children is that I don’t want to burden others with my death. It’s one of my regrets with marriage. Should something happen to me, I don’t want my wife suffering long after I’m gone. It would be far better for me to die single in a lightly attended funeral than to leave behind a widow who will struggle her life back together after I’m gone. But then again, maybe that’s the “remember me” arrogance talking. I married a strong woman. I’m sure she’ll move on just fine without me.

So yeah, I think there’s comfort remembering our loved ones. Memories of my mother still warm my heart, followed by bouts of longing and depression. I can’t help it. But yeah, in my case, it’s arrogant to ask people to remember me after I’m gone. Perhaps the kinder and better message would be “Forget me. Live a good life without me.”

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On Living People Your Corpse Will See Again

Smile

An interesting thing happened over the weekend. Someone from the company I work for passed away on Friday. Nothing too unexpected; after all, he was getting up there in years. So on Friday afternoon, people either went to the hospital or made plans to attend the wake or the funeral. Amidst of it all, I heard that one of my former co-workers and an old friend of the diseased made plans to go on a flight over the weekend in order to make it on time for the funeral. He lives in the US.

The last time I saw the diseased was over two years ago. He was a big man in the company. Many years before, he was usually driven around and led by helpers, and even accompanied by company lackeys. But the time I saw him, he was not surrounded by helpers and no one was opening any doors for him. Any clout he had within the company, he seems to have relinquished at the time. If I didn’t recognize him, I would’ve confused him for any other old man wandering the streets of Seoul. In any case, I imagine with things being the way they are, with his old friend living in the US for so many years now, I’m guessing there was not much correspondence between the two. I was the one who initiated telling him about his friend passing. I’m not sure if they’ve heard about each other in the years before.

And so what have I learned? I learned about a special type of relationship, a new category of person whom I find it hard to pinpoint exactly which one of my few friends belongs to. Not a friend who you’ll talk to, do favors for, or keep in touch with now and then. This friend does not care how deep a depth you swim to or on what slow hell you are killing yourself with at the moment. None of it matters to this friend. It is most grim, and I’m not passing judgment on whether it is good or not, but ultimately this friend is quite the intimate sort of acquaintance. This friend will be there for you only when you finally die. This is the friend that will only reunite with you when there’s not much left of you to be reunited with.

Again, I don’t think this is good or bad. I think it is intimate, peculiar, and not necessarily unique, especially when it comes to relatives. How many of us only see our distant relatives only when they finally pass? But I think it really is more special when it comes to non-blood acquaintances, particularly because there’s no familial pressure pushing one to be there for the wake or the funeral. “I haven’t seen him forever, but I have to be there for the funeral.” Who is this for exactly? For the diseased? For the visitor? Or the relationship that’s now expired? What’s funny is, when I start thinking about the people in my life, auditing my relationships and choosing which people I’ll probably never see again but who’ll likely be there at my lightly-attended funeral. It’s a rather sad, interesting, and honest exercise.

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On PTSD

Tentacular

I used to think Canada was better when it comes to mental health, but this report on CBC regarding Lionel Desmond has got me thinking twice. Back in Canada, it was not unusual to talk to a therapist about mental and psychological issues. People wouldn’t bat an eye if they heard that you used to go to a therapist for anxiety or depression, probably because they have firsthand or secondhand experience themselves. But now it seems we’re failing those who have sacrificed so much for what in my opinion are needless conflicts abroad.

I’ve seen people with PTSD before. I talked to soldiers here in South Korea who were suffering from it. I remember being particularly disturbed (and threatened) by one soldier’s behavior in a bar even after he was buying me shots of tequila. Then he tells me that two weeks prior, he was fighting in Afghanistan.  There was just an odd look in his eye. And I just have to let him tell his story, and take it to where it needs to be. (And me not come back to that bar for a while.)

We just have to start taking care of everyone more. We have to start listening to people when they tell us there’s something wrong, even when they’re soldiers who are supposed to be strong and tough. Boys do cry, and some damages you can’t just walk off.

Speaking of not paying attention to mental health issues, a few days ago, a celebrity in Korea committed suicide, and on his note, he mentioned the lack of care he received from mental health professionals in the country. I can relate to the experience. Twice, I found doctors who would just throw medication at me and not give me proper strategies to deal with my issues. I can imagine the same was true to him. It’s quite upsetting that there’s not much care in terms of mental issues in the country, especially with the country having the highest suicide rate in Asia.

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The Stone Angel

TravelManitoba

I remember being asked to read The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence back in high school. It was one of the many wonderful books that our English teacher used to try to infuse some humanity into our young minds. I don’t remember the story much, but I do remember the parallels between the old character in the book and the ultimate fate of Margaret Laurence. It’s like she literally became one of the characters she wrote about. I really should look into the Manawaka series again.

Speaking of Manawaka, my works will be displayed in the town it was based on, Neepawa, Manitoba.  When I used to go camping and hiking with my best friend, I remember visiting there once. Here in Asia, when people think of Canada, the first places that come out of people’s mouths are Toronto and Vancouver. But when they describe Canada, they would often imagine a place much closer to towns like Neepawa.

I love big cities like Vancouver and Ottawa, and even smaller ones like Winnipeg, but it is smaller rural towns cradling close to liberated Canadian wilderness that most people here in Asia often imagine. It is in many ways romantic. I guess like me, that image is mostly from the desire to escape from convoluted concrete jungles like Seoul.

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Not Talking About Suicide

carnival

I used to occasionally go to suicide forums and talk to people… because why not? Like many people who suffer from depression, the thought of suicide has come to my head, but I’m much of a coward to really give it too much serious thought. It was more like, “if I’m going to kill myself, I’d do it this way” or “if this happens, that would be the thing that would make me go ahead and kill myself.” It was a thought experiment more than anything else. But as for the forums, occasionally I would read people’s posts. They were mostly young people, complaining about their lives, or people frustrated by their significant others. It’s rare, but sometimes, I would respond back. Instead of being a community of people seeking help before they do what they shouldn’t, I think it’s really more a community of people just trying to get their voices heard. It’s a place where a person can say their troubles instead of being deconstructed or given solutions to their problems. There was no judgment. It was a place that tells people that they are not insane, nor are they alone. That there’s nothing new under the sun and that they’ll get through whatever it is that’s giving them trouble. I suppose I might be accused of being a tourist for being there, but for a time, it really helped me with my depression. It felt good telling a complete stranger that things we’re going to be alright.

I live in a place where suicide is quite common place. People often regard Japan as one of the suicide capitals of the world, but really, South Korea has it beat. Even the former president committed suicide and in some ways normalized the whole thing. But as horrible as South Korea is when it comes to its suicide statistics and the reasons for why so many people are committing suicide (societal pressures, money troubles, elderly depression, stigma against seeing psychiatric help…) it surprised me to learn that Canada isn’t doing too well when it comes to suicide either.

Canada’s in the thirties when ranked with other countries. But when you look at that ranking, it disguises the fact that some communities are more susceptible to suicide than others. Aboriginal males are six times more likely to commit suicide than non-Aboriginal males. In 2000, out of 100,000 Aboriginal males, 126 committed suicide. For non-Aboriginals, it was 24. If you consider the size disparity between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal communities, the suicide rates affecting small areas in the country is staggering. It’s gigantic compared to the suicide rate in South Korea (27 out of 100,000).

What’s shameful is that with countries like South Korea and Japan are actively doing things to help stop their suicide epidemics in the face of the horrible statistics. The police are patrolling suicide-prone areas, and there are groups which monitor vulnerable people. People are talking about the problem and how to deal with it. And while Canada has been helping some communities deal with depression, addiction, and mental health issues, I’m not sure if we’re doing enough to help prevent the high rates of suicide. I think it’s such a non-issue with the average Canadian that I wouldn’t even be aware of the problem if I didn’t have an interest in it myself. Clearly, present-day efforts are not enough for Aboriginal communities. There are initiatives that help them deal with problems once they are already dealing with them, but I’m not sure if Canada is doing enough to help prevent depression and mental health issues from developing in the first place. Now I’m not saying that South Korea and Japan are doing a lot more than Canada to help their citizens have more fulfilling lives to help prevent suicidal thoughts (I don’t think they are, they’re just doing more to keep people from committing the act), but I think Aboriginal communities are much more susceptible to this problem that it’s something the country should address. After all, much of the First Nations’ woes have been the result of its history with the Canadian government.

 

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