Someone asked me recently, “how do you deal with grief?”
“I become obsessed with death.”
Over the years, the term empath has been used to describe me – most often used as a negative connotation by partners who thought I was too needy – though sometimes it was considered a gift. But, as such, I’ve learned to convert highly emotional situations into more of a scholarly analysis. I think more about the science behind things, the clinical aspects. I did this in an attempt to avoid being overly emotional. Death and dying is one of those situations.
“That’s interesting.” She looked at me with genuine intrigue and I was charmed by her response. She continued, “why do you think that is?”
At that moment I remembered she was a psychology major and would probably understand if I had said, astutely, “defense mechanism,” and left it at that, but instead I tried to paint a picture of why my obsession with death had become a defense mechanism.
When my grandmother passed away I became a robot, instantly, and if I hadn’t, I’m sure I would have crumbled under the emotions. Much like an addict understands they can’t go into a bar, or be around anyone who is using, I knew I had to separate myself from all sentiment.
After suffering a stroke around 1995, when I was about 15, she and my grandfather came to live with us. Years later, I lived with her and my grandpa. I helped take care of her. I changed her diapers, I helped her bathe, I clipped her toe nails, and held her hand everywhere we went.
I was devastated when they moved back to the Philippines. I knew I couldn’t care for her forever, and my grandfather was not in the best of health either, so going back to the Philippines where they would have maids and cooks and drivers made the most sense, but it was painful not being around her all the time. When we got the call that she was sick, having contracted some kind of pneumonia or something, and probably wouldn’t make it, we (my mom, my aunt, and me) flew there to be with her.
When we arrived, and entered her room, she was vacant. Her eyes were open but locked on the ceiling, her head tilted back, her chin reaching upwards that she was straining to see something above her.. Her dentures were missing, and the bottom two remaining teeth jutted out over her top lip. She had an underbite and at this moment, she was scraping the bottom of her nose with her teeth. By day two, her nose was raw and bleeding. She didn’t make any noise, just stared at the ceiling, chewing. We figured out – by deduction really – that her chewing was her way of telling us she was in pain. We asked if they could increase her pain medication and as soon as they did, she stopped chewing.
The night before she died (day five in the hospital) when everyone was leaving the room I stayed behind, “I’ll be right there.” Once they left, I walked across the room and maneuvered my way past the monitors and the cold metal railings of her hospital bed, to reach her head. I squeezed my large frame between the railings and so I could kiss her. Her hair was coarse and gray but she smelled good and her skin was soft. I put my face near her and whispered in her ear, “I love you, Grandma. I love you.” She grunted at me.
I was the last one to see her. I was the last one to feel her while she was still warm. She died the next morning before we could make it to the hospital. When we arrived she was in her bed, and all of the monitors were silent, but still flashing. The bed rails had been lowered and I watched my mother drape herself over her mother’s body. My mom began to sob, “Mommy, mommy….” which was weird to hear her say; she had only ever referred to her as “Grandma” and when she talked to her, it was never Mommy. My grandfather leaned against the hospital wall, his cane in one hand, his glasses in the other and he wept too.
As we stood there, the hospital staff began wrapping her body. They didn’t even ask us to leave the room, but as they moved her, everyone left but me. I couldn’t; I didn’t want anything to happen to her body.
I was with her body as hospital staff wrapped it in what seemed like painters plastic and removed it from her hospital room. I was with her body as they transferred it to a metal gurney and wheeled it down a number of long hallways to the morgue. I sat with her body in the cold basement of the hospital, trying not to stare at her unmanicured toes, as they poked from beneath the plastic. I remember looking around thinking, “should I be down here? Is this allowed?” I also thought about what her body was doing, on the inside, not about the fact that my best friend was dead.
“Is this Nilda?” Two fat men in brown suits seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
“Yah, that’s her.” They spoke to each other in tagalog before grabbing her gurney and heading for the door marked, “Loading.” I assumed they were from the crematorium.
Did you know in the Philippines they won’t release a person’s body until you pay the medical bills? I was sitting in the basement for a long time while my grandfather pulled together the money to close out his debt. And before anyone could join me in the morgue, my grandmother’s body – metal gurney and all – was rolled into the back of a repurposed ambulance. I stood there, in the hallway, cold and confused, waiting for someone to come get me.
Once we arrived at the crematorium, I watched as her body (wrapped in a soft white sheet, and then neatly tucked into an open-faced cardboard box) was rolled into the flames of a kiln. I heard a loud, low bang when my grandmother’s body could no longer contain her metal hip, and I sat – for nearly five hours – with family members while her body burned. Even now I can recall how the heat in the small room was almost too much to bear, or how, when it was over, they swept her into a bag, sealed the bag into a black nondescript plastic container and handed her over like I had ordered a fresh baked dozen donuts. The box was still warm, heat emanating from it as it sat on my lap for the entire 60 minutes back to my family’s home in Manila.
I wasn’t a stranger to losing people at that point in my life. I was 20-something at the time; I cried when my grandfather died; I cried when my great-grandmother died, I cried when I lost my step-brother (he was young, 25, killed by a drunk driver), but this was different.
From the moment my family left the hospital room, until the moment I let go of the black box filled with her ashes, her death was clinical for me. There could be no time for emotions. I had to be there for her body. I had to watch over it.
“You asked me how I deal with grief, well, it’s something I don’t allow myself to deal with until I’ve processed death itself.”