Last night was the second gathering of “The Examined Life,” an event series I started hosting for the non-profit mental health organization CandleX based in Beijing. Our topic last night was mortality and grief. The 12 attendees, in different phases of their lives and of different cultural backgrounds, bonded over vulnerable, personal stories of death. We united, simply, in the fact that we’re all human. Death is a culturally forbidden topic in most of the China I know. As far as my earliest memories go, I feared my grandparents’ deaths. Being a naturally sensitive person, I concluded at a young age that death was the worst loss of all because you simply never recover from it. But this fear was unspoken. Whenever I tried to raise this existential concern, the adults around me would say, “Now that’s a sinister thought. Don’t think about such sad events; be happy.” Older me now understand the way we dodge our death anxiety was in fact a somewhat healthy defense mechanism as life is so much more than death. However, we can’t avoid death forever; truth is, someday it comes back to haunt us. And this year it has. With both Tim and my grandparents getting increasingly ill, we realise it’s that time of our life that “the worst loss” isn’t far from us. So without much experience I started grieving. I started grieving the dreams and future I looked forward to sharing with grandparents. I started imagining life and a world without them. I started settling in with the fact that my future kids would probably never meet them, and that’s okay. During this process I realised how lonely grief can be. A friend’s therapist described the way she grieved her late boyfriend's sudden death as sitting in a dark room alone with dried tears all over her face, and there was no light at all. That’s an accurate description of grief, I thought. It’s a dark, inaccessible space, and we are there by ourselves because of how tabooed it is to talk about one of the worst types of pain openly, and how rare it is to find a communal space that isn’t church or therapy that welcomed such discussions.
Credit: Tania Yakunova Attendees shared with us the loss of friend, mother, father, partner, brother, uncle, some of which happened as recently as 3 months ago and some as far dated back as two decades ago. As a group, we grieved together by recounting the memories we had with our loved ones. We came to agree that confronting other’s and our own mortality guides us to lead more fulfilling lives. Many said they started living their lives drastically differently after staring death in the face. They started exercising more, saying yes (and no) more, gave up on suicidal attempts to let light sink in, and they slowed down to appreciate the little moments of life frequently and unapologetically. In different ways, we learned from and are transformed by our loss. If one can heal from a traumatic event, it ceases to be trauma and evolves into something that empowers and drives us. Yesterday was a gathering of empowerment, rather than sadness.