More Than Serving Tea


Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the death category.

Forgiveness Six Feet Under

Nine years ago today, on New Year’s Day, my mother-in-law died.

I think it was my father-in-law, in a moment of morbid and loving levity, joked that she had waited until the morning of the New Year so we would never forget the day she died. We would start out every year thinking of her.

He was right.

She had been under hospice care for more than a week at a hospital two minutes away from our home. The rare kidney cancer, held at bay through surgery for several months, had spread. Chemo and radiation were not an option because those treatments would do nothing. Months on a trial drug seemed to stall things for a bit, but my mother-in-law was convinced she would be cured of the cancer though tests continued to prove otherwise. She bought mangosteen juice. She tweaked her diet. She prayed, and she sought the prayers of others. She would not die yet.

We know this because months after her death my father-in-law and I were able to read through some of her final thoughts written in various composition notebooks. We could tell by her handwriting when she was having good days and when she was having bad days.

We could also tell that while she held onto hope of health and life, she had her share of regrets, a few fears of the future, and held onto a bitter and broken relationship.

Our bitter and broken relationship.

My mother-in-law was a strong, opinionated, driven woman. She could move mountains if necessary and she was fiercely loyal to her family. She was creative, funny, and  some of her friends warned me when Peter and I got engaged that my future mother-in-law was feared and fierce. At a family function she asked me if my parents were going to allow me to marry her son.

“Of course,” I replied in formal Korean.

“Too bad,” she responded.

I was not yet the woman I am now. I was 22 years old and speechless. I was offended and afraid. I was disappointed and angry. And instead of forgiving her I let those words set a tone for our relationship and sink deeply into my heart. We did not like each other, but we both loved her son. I had so much in common with her, but chose the bitter thing. We were stuck.

For better or for worse.

For richer or for poorer. 

In sickness and in health. 

Till death do us part.

I let her words sink too deeply and allowed disappointments and anger to chip at my sometimes fragile relationship with my husband his family. It has been almost nine years since we buried her. There are many things I have said many times are in the past, but when newer friends asked me and Peter to recount our wedding and family traditions I knew that the past was still very present in unhealthy, unhelpful ways.

How does one ask the forgiveness of someone and forgive someone who was buried nine years ago?

The start of a new year always begs for fresh starts and new beginnings. May this be the year of journeying into forgiveness and reconciliation.

 

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When Life and Death and Life Get in the Way

My grandmother Hee Soon Shin passed away this evening at 5:45 pm. She took her final breaths surrounded by two of her children, one of her sons-in-law and two of her granddaughters. She lived a full 91 years in two countries and several cultural shifts. She left this side of heaven with the same grace and strength I have always associated with her.

She was a widow before she hit her 40s, during the Korean War, with five young children in her care. Shortly after her husband’s death, she lost a daughter – an aunt I had never heard about until I was already a mother myself. She never remarried. I asked her once why she never remarried. She smiled, quickly covering her sweet grin with her right hand, and said in our mother tongue, “It’s not that I didn’t have the chance. But I had children, and I didn’t know if any man could love them like their own. Besides, I had already been married. Why did I need to do that again?”

My sister and I were sitting bedside this evening, urging our own mother and aunt out the door so they could run home, change out of their church garb, and return having prepared themselves to keep vigil. We had spent the day together, at one point in the hospital laughing as we noticed my grandmother was being kept company my mother and her two daughters – three generations of women born into varying degrees (if there is such a thing, truly) of patriarchy. My grandmother’s breathing had already slowed, but as they left my mother and aunt paused to say another goodbye. We noticed my grandmother’s breathing continued to shallow and slow. The stillness, another breath, another pause, another breath, another pause longer than the first.

I suspect my mother is still holding her breath. Waiting.

My grandmother was always a lady. I remember watching her wash her face, a painstaking ritual of cleansing, rinsing, refilling the sink with clean water to rinse her face again. She moisturized religiously, patting, never rubbing, her face. She massaged her neck and hands. Her hair was always cut and styled, her clothes tailored and pressed. She always covered her mouth when she laughed. Fortunately for me and my sister, we inherited some of those genes, though I suspect my tendency to smile and laugh with a wide opened mouth and wild hand gestures are a product of culture and recessive genes.

She came with me and my mother to get tattoos. It was actually a multigenerational field trip of vanity – my mother and grandmother having their eyebrows tattooed while I had my eyeliner, top and bottom, done in between nursing Bethany who came along in her car seat. I will never forget the four of us sitting over steaming bowls of rice and soup after having needles poke ink into our skin. Three of us with eyelids and brows puffy and shiny from the assault staring at each other, laughing over what we had just done, looking at Bethany sleeping in her carseat. Four generations of Korean (American) women who would share creased eyelids and a love for fashion, makeup and style.

She often vacillated between staunch traditionalist – especially thrilled that her first two granddaughters (me and my sister, the only children of her oldest surviving daughter, would give her five great-grandsons), and moments of almost-feminist – supporting my decision to keep my maiden name legally and professionally. She worried about my career ambitions getting in the way of taking care of my husband and children, but she would often tell me how blessed I was to have a husband who loved and respected me for and encouraged me to pursue those very ambitions.

I was supposed to leave for California Tuesday morning for a trip to speak at Pepperdine University’s chapel service Wednesday morning. Those ambitions that often conflicted both my grandmother and my mother (who am I kidding, those ambitions conflicted me!) brewing and developing and growing through writing and speaking and following God’s call and opportunities…instead of speaking to college student’s about the pain of being an outcast and alone and the grace, belonging and power of Christ I will be grieving, remembering, and learning. Sometimes, just when you think you’ve figured life out, life changes.

My grandmother lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Korean War, and martial law. She lived through the death of an infant child, her husband, and a daughter all before immigrating to the United States. She was one of “those” people who never learned the language beyond a very, very polite, “I don’t understand. No English.” and yet she remained the matriarch, setting right her three daughters and son and their spouses; four granddaughters and four grandsons; and three great granddaughters and six great grandsons.

She and I didn’t meet until I was in elementary school, after my tongue had lost some of its Korean fluency. Over the years, my tongue spoke less and less Korean, but I understood her fierce love for three generations, each generation speaking and knowing less of her world yet still connected through blood and faith.

It’s way past my Lenten bedtime, but as I finally make my way to sleep I will remember how my grandmother taught me about self-care, grace, and strength. I will wash and moisturize my face. I will rub lotion into my hands. And I will rest in my Christ’s love.


In Times Like These We Are All Americans. Not Really. Let’s All Be Human.

By the time I finish editing this post, the name of the third victim killed in the Boston Marathon bombing will be making its way around the interwebs. Look at how the news media writes about her, her country. Please take a look at the comments on those stories. Maybe you will be surprised. I’m hoping to be surprised by our humanity, but so far not so much.

Because in times like these, we are actually not all Americans. Tragedy, despite what newscasters might have us believe, can often be quite divisive. I’m well aware of the many random acts of kindness, and how Bostonians literally opened up their homes and shared their resources. But when you heard about the bombing, did you think, even for a moment, “I hope the perp isn’t (fill in the blank with your choice of race, ethnicity, citizenship, etc.).”? I did. Remember Virginia Tech. That was only six years ago. The South Korean government apologized on the shooter’s behalf.

In times like these, the “other” is always to blame.  Don’t forget the erroneous reports about a Saudi national being held for questioning. Unless you are an American, and dare I say look “American”, your involvement, your presence may be called into question. There were plenty of people on the scene that looked like Timothy McVeigh or Terry Nichols. One comment on a news article read: “…we have enough problems without involving the Chinese.”

But the Chinese are involved. In fact, the world is involved. As far as I know, the Boston Marathon draws an international running community together. And she was there to watch, just like thousands of other fellow human beings.

She was a Chinese graduate student at Boston University, not much older than my own daughter, and very much like many of the college and university students I interact with through my work with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In fact, before turning on the news I knew through Facebook this young woman had attended an InterVarsity graduate student fall conference. She had friends. She had a roommate. She was known. And she was loved.

This morning I heard a talking head on the television say that her name had not yet been released because her parents had not yet told her grandparents. Her parents were concerned the grandparents would not be able to handle the news.

In a culture like ours, where free speech and an individual’s right to bear arms like a battalion headed into war are sacred, where news and misinformation are often confused for one another, where the news cycle never stops on any front, it may seem odd to want to keep such important, personal, yet devastating news from loved ones when people are wondering “who is the third victim”. But for Eastern culture, familial ties run deep and are visceral. Perhaps it is because we in America expect to see a grieving loved one bravely face the cameras or give the media a quote or statement. We respect the grief, but we want to be allowed to be a part of it. But for this young woman’s family, the grief might just physically overcome the grandparents. Or perhaps, her activities here could call her entire family into question under a government in a culture that seems so unlike “ours”.

We may never know all of the details of her life, but that shouldn’t make her less human, less a victim, less important. I do not know if she and I shared a faith in Jesus, but in times like these I don’t care whether or not she was an American. She was my sister, bearing the image of God just as the unnamed Saudi national, Martin Richard and Krystle Campbell.

May the Lord have mercy on us all.

 


Grief Takes Form

ribbons of mourning

My father-in-law died on Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent, a season of reflection on Christ’s suffering, death, burial and resurrection.

The morning he died I read out of Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter. I chose passage about God knowing and choosing to live into human suffering, how the resurrected Christ invited Thomas to touch his nail-pierced hands. I don’t know what it is to suffer the failing health and body of 87 years, but Jesus does, and that is what I whispered in my father-in-law’s ear. My only regret was that I couldn’t translate the reading into Korean, forever the Korean daughter-in-law.

Four hours later he took his last breaths, and the family moved into a fog of grief, guilty relief, sadness, memories, cultural expectations, and uncertainty about the future.

Paul Si Kun Chang, 87, lived with us for 7 months in 2006. He moved in with us days after my mother-in-law died. Friends of hers thought I wept because I felt guilty for not doing enough as a daughter-in-law. Little did they know I wept because I knew what was coming, and I wasn’t sure I was cut out to be that kind of Korean daughter-in-law.

My father-in-law had many moments worthy of a K-drama. He and I argued over the sheer amount of stuff he wanted to move into his room and into my house. The four-drawer, heavy-duty file cabinet and pleather recliner sent me over the edge. He would come into my office and ask to be served lunch. My favorite was when he looked at his plate of spaghetti (the kids had begged for “American” food after weeks of Korean food), and he told me he wasn’t going to eat it for dinner.

But we had many more moments as he mourned and tried to find his way out of the sadness while living in the company of a family of five on the move. He trimmed the bushes, rinsed out the garbage cans, tried to teach my boys how to swing a golf club, and he shared with me bits and pieces of his story – how he longed for his mother when he saw me love on my kids, how excited he was to receive confirmation of his arranged marriage, and how he couldn’t believe a poor Korean could live such an incredible life as an American.

Stories all spoken to me in Korean, usually when I served him a traditional Korean meal for lunch or dinner.

My grief is not that of a daughter; my memories of our relationship only go as far back as my relationship with Peter. My grief feels distinctly that of a Korean American daughter-in-law – “myu-noo-lree”. My father-in-law did not first meet me as a newborn; he met me at my prime grandson-bearing years. We both saw and knew each other in relationship to our cultural roles.

It took almost 20 years for us to trust each other with our own stories of faith and suffering and hope. That’s why it made sense to read a Lenten devotional to him on Ash Wednesday while wishing I could have done it in Korean. That was the link that helped us understand each other in ways his son and my husband could not.

Death and all of the preparations were a whirlwind until I sat down with the black ribbon to wrap around his portrait and then the white ribbon to make the traditional symbols of mourning the surviving children and grandchildren would wear.

Grief, remembrance and reflection did not begin with ashes this year. It took form in white bows.

 


Some Women Were Watching

“Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.” Mark 15:40, 41 TNIV

I know many women who have experienced the death of a child. We have grieved the loss of babies lost to miscarriages and in infancy. Children lost to physical death. Teenagers and adult children dead before their mothers. Mothers who cared deeply for their children and their needs. Who held their breath and watched as they could only hope that the darkness of death would pass over.

My son was not crucified. I am not Mary. I am a woman, a wife, a mother to a son. I know “my place” is not always to preach and teach but to “share” and “give testimony”. I imagine Jesus on the cross, the crowds, the centurion, and then the women.

I remember my then four-year-old son’s body lying near lifeless on the adult-sized hospital gurney. Those hours took me to despair and hours of darkness. Tubes, machines, drugs, doctors, and nothing helped so they sunk him closer to death. And I sat there. I watched until they forced me to leave. I touched him when others poked and prodded and walked away. I spoke to him, sang to him, prayed for him while others talked about him and walked away.

I know it was a miracle. I was there. I was watching.

On this dark Good Friday I remember what Jesus did and who he is. I read the scripture knowing what happens and how the disciples run away and hide just when I want to hear their voices loud and clear. And then I see them and hear them. Some women were watching.

 


Life and Death and Life In Death

It has been a long week.

By the end of tonight I will have been at the same suburban funeral home three out of seven days this week. One evening and morning were set aside to mourn the loss of Peter’s uncle, and one evening was set aside to mourn the loss of a friend’s father.

The two deaths this week gave way to opportunities to talk. I talked about my mother-in-law’s death with my husband and my sister-in-law – what we remember from the days leading up to and after her death, feelings and memories that rose to the surface after being together at the beginning of the week for Peter’s uncle’s wake and funeral.

I talked around death as my parents shared with me some details about their estate since it’s never a good time even though it’s always a good time to talk about life insurance policies and living wills.

All this talk, and I’m tired. I’ve been to many memorial services and wakes, but I have found those of first generation Korean immigrants to be some of the most mournful, sorrowful, and emotionally draining. Outward expressions of grief are limited to the occasional sob and cry, but the room is filled in black with a respectful, honoring, but heavy grief. No one but the presiding pastor speaks above a whisper, and stories are told without smiles or laughter.

Photo displays may include pictures filled with smiles and fond memories, but the photo by the casket, often marked by two black ribbons around the top two corners, is an expressionless headshot. It’s as if the person knows they will not be around to see this photo that captures life and death. It’s not unusual to see rather large flower arrangements adorned with messages of condolences written on ribbons or banners from the deceased’s or surviving family members’ Korean high school or college/university alumni association.

Some of the traditions, even in Christian Korean funerals, are connected to Korea’s Buddhist roots where the dead are wrapped in yellow hemp; the men of the deceased person’s family wear small bows made of yellow hemp and the women still wear small white ribbons (white being the color of death and mourning) signaling to the world around them that they are in mourning.

I once told my mother that I would not want to put my own children through that kind of memorial service when I die. My mother quickly shot back, “That is how you show respect to us when we die.”

The wake for a high school classmate’s mother was the first example of a different way to celebrate life and death. I walked in and was quickly alarmed and confused. People were sitting casually in small groups around the room, some dressed as if they were headed out to a nice lunch but there was enough color and lightness in the room that surprised me. I was wearing all black. (Actually, I wore a lot of black in those days, but that’s for another post.) They were talking, laughing, sharing tears and memories of my friend’s mother. There was talk about life in the presence of the dead, talk about life with life and laughter.

But in neither my Korean or American contexts have I found a good space to talk about death, particularly death in light of the living. I find it fairly easy to talk about those who have already died, but death and ways to celebrate life in death are more often than not reserved for the moments as families plan the funeral.

So it has come as some relief in the weightiness of the week’s events that this week began with Easter and last night was spent  preparing for Sunday’s worship service…

There’s a day that’s drawing near

When this darkness breaks to light

And the shadows disappear

And my faith shall be my eyes.

Jesus has overcome and the grave is overwhelmed

The victory is won, He is risen from the dead.