Grieving is an Art

Uncategorized, Winter 2016-17





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Kanani Foster

Schiele, Egon 1890-1918. 'Trauernde Frau' (mourning woman) / akg-images / Universal Images Group Rights Managed / For Education Use Only

Schiele, Egon 1890-1918. ‘Trauernde Frau’ (mourning woman) / akg-images / Universal Images Group Rights Managed / For Education Use Only


There is an airy humdrum whirring in the hospital room; wires hang and twist from bed to monitor and wall in a ceremonious blink of intermittent lights. Unlike the preconceived image of an omniscient heart monitor counting the moments between life and death, all is quiet.

My grandmother is curling in on herself slowly with each passing hour. Her heavy folded lids twitch while her soft dark hands paw at her face, and I am reminded of a fetus moments before entering the world, unaware of its surroundings and even its own self. She doesn’t hear my teary hiccups.

When I entered the room I called her name, apprehensive of even touching her. Last night, before the ambulances came, she did not recognize my mother, her own child. She screamed and pushed my mom away, frantic in the moment of not knowing, and then somewhere between her old couch to this hospital gurney she no longer responded to us. I am terrified of putting my hand on her shoulder, but I finally do. There is nothing here.

Sitting on the chair in the corner, I am acutely aware that this will be my final moment with my grandmother.

The only other death that had touched my sheltered life was a childhood friend. I could not remember the last time we spoke, but I did remember the news breaking over the school that day. That moment was only a point in my life, a marker to pinpoint how our paths were not explicitly joined, and neither her life nor death affected me directly.  It was simply a moment that made me sad, because I was acutely aware that I would not ever see her again.

This is different; I am watching a gentle death. It is astounding in the artistry and skill that is slowly taking place before me as organs find rest, the blood begins to slow, and breaths are pulled farther apart. I am sad that I am watching my flesh and blood wither. I am sad that I will never speak to her again. I am sad that I will not miss her as much as I should.

This death fills me with remorse to the opportunities I missed.

                        The knowledge and history that is gone.

                                    The relationship I could have formed.



 It’s hard to look at the withered man beside me. He is stripped of any bit of pride, vanity, and perhaps even his sanity at this point. My grandmother’s mouth hangs open like an old Japanese ghoul and I try to distract myself with the thought that, if spirits exist, hers had floated from her mouth like a soft exhaling of smoke. I suddenly have the urge to open a window to let her free.

 â€œWake up, Ma, wake up.” He is gently shaking her. I coax him into the chair next to the bed that he has already occupied for the past week, waiting. The wait is up and I am almost glad to feel the stress bleach itself from the room with a new shade of grief.

Over the past months we have watched my grandfather falter in speech, physical ability, and memory, yet in this moment he is more aware than I have seen him a year. He may not understand the complex renal system failure that claimed her, out but he feels the loss. He felt it when the realization dawned on him that these were her last days.



I guess it’s selfish, but I haven’t visited my grandfather in two weeks now. I can’t bring myself to unless my mom pushes me to the small cabin across the way, muggy, full of his resounding grief. He has a compulsive need to fix the blinds that are not broken, and when he does my mom will whisper that the dementia is a blessing. I still can’t look at it that way.

My grandfather flutters between a drugged oblivion of minute details and past lifetimes to stuttered confusion at the here and now. Some visits he ignores me, staring blankly at another old Western film on AMC that he has surely seen within the past week; other times he paws at his leathered hands, stuttering in his excitement for this meager 30 minutes of company.

Like most people, I don’t stay very long.

He doesn’t get many calls and obsesses over the two times a week my mom takes him out grocery shopping, counting the days till he gets to go out again and do something. Busy work, it’s what keeps him going these days.

The cabin is unbearably humid as he always liked it, pretending he was back home in Hawaii or Florida, and sweat rolls down my neck as I try to talk to him. It has only been a few hours since our listless drive home from the hospital, yet my grandpa is completely focused on the shades covering the sliding door. At least he has that damned dog, I’m grateful for it even as it yaps and nips at my heels. He’d be lost without it.

The sliding door shade glides on a track that his stick is repeatedly poking and prodding,

                  “It’s stuck.

                        It’s stuck.

                                    It’s stuck.”

It’s not. He is relentless though and I try to think of something that might bring him to me and away from desperate thoughts of fixing something that’s not broken.

I ask, “What’s that tattoo of?” the ink on his body is faded blue on a canvas that is soft and crinkles like tissue paper. This tattoo seems to be a knife with what might be a hand holding it.

 â€œI was stupid. This was my- my first tattoo.”

The tattoo was ugly. Badly drawn with ink that faded quickly; he might as well have gotten it in prison with a safety pin. I point out another, one that his shirtsleeve covers. This tattoo is a piece of history; a black skull with air force wings and a banner overhead reading “Billy”.

 â€œI designed this. We, we all have it.”


œSixteen of us. We were in the same–”
He stutters, trying to remember.

 â€œGroup? Platoon? Squad?”


I point out another that his shaking fingers begin to sweep, this one being a red rose. It’s a cover-up job–lying underneath it, coiled in its petals is his ex-wife’s name that my mother has forgotten and he refuses to utter. I wonder how Grandma felt about it. Was it something they bickered over? Or something that was never spoken of? Another is the word Hawaii on his forearm, his social security number on his left shoulder, even his name is splayed across his arm. As we point and unveil new sketches of his own history I feel him begin to let go of his grief and reminisce on each moment in time he has saved on his body; each mistake, each victory and each love.



Grieving is an art t unique to each person. My grandpa burned all of her clothes three days after she died, sprinkling the lawn with the ashes. My mom had her actual ashes sent directly to her brother in Hawaii–“It’s what she would’ve wanted”but I know that holding my grandma in that state would’ve been too much for her. She sat by my grandmother’s side till her chest finally caved in, refusing to rise again, and that’s closure enough for most.

I cried like everyone else but somehow still managed to crack a joke sitting in front of my grandma’s body; her mouth unhinged and eyes shut, earning me a sharp look from my mom till she began to laugh and cry once again. It was sad but my life continued on after we left the hospital, leaving me to wonder at my grieving.

I miss her. I really do.

I miss the little things though the most; her genuine interest in my life, her sticky rice that seemed stickier than most sticky rice, her long-winded stories that never concluded.

One day, at the Asian Art Museum, seeing the walls hung with ornate silk kimonos decorated with golden threads spun into peonies and koi, another memory returned–my grandmother clambering down from the upstairs of her cabin holding a parcel. Inside were her own kimonos from Japan, an airy blue with white flowers and a heavier white with gold flowers coating the bottom trim. There was no time or reason I would wear them, but I held them close.

Standing in the museum I foraged my mind for the kimonos’ whereabouts; my parents’ house in the closet, under my own bed, in storage? I didn’t know. It rattled me and I felt like a foreigner to this heritage and culture. I felt as silly as the white girls dressed in kimonos and sloppy geisha makeup waiting for the museum’s Japanese fashion show. I had lost my grandmother and a piece of my heritage.

My great-grandfather came to America on a tiny boat from Japan, ready to pick pineapple on the islands of Hawaii to save money and become someone. I remembered all this but I forgot his name, he would always just be someone now.

Later I call my mom asking if she remembers esn’t. Mizaki? Maybe Matsu? She has to think on that. There is no use in asking my grandfather; his speech is falling away along with the ability to even recall his last meal.

It is all slipping through the cracks.



Photo creit:

E.Schiele / Mourning Woman / Ptg./ 1912. Fine Art. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016. Accessed 20 Jan 2017.