After my father dies, I become, for a time, someone I do not recognize. Entire weeks are all but lost to me, scooped out of my once airtight memory. Our rental term ends two months after the funeral, and when we move into another house, I hardly remember packing or unpacking.
I don’t know how to ask for leave from my job. I tell myself that I can’t afford to take unpaid time off anyway. The truth is that I have always been able to work, and now I learn that grief is no hindrance to my productivity. I bank on this, even feel a kind of twisted pride in it. It doesn’t matter to me whether I take care of myself, because I do not deserve the care. All my parents wanted was to spend more time with us, to see us more than once a year or every other year, and I never found a way to make it happen, and now my father is dead. When other people—my husband, my friends—try to tell me that I am not at fault, I barely hear them. Punishing myself, keeping myself in as much pain as possible, seems like something a good daughter should do if it is too late for her to do anything else.
There is a flurry of activity in the run-up to the publication of my first book. My publisher sends me to conferences, schedules readings and interviews. I am grateful, and frankly surprised, to be getting any attention at all, and so of course I tell everyone that I am more than ready to do my part, to help the book succeed. I know how important it is to my career, and I feel enormous pressure not to let down any of the people who are working so hard on it. I want it to have a fighting chance, too, because it is a book in which my father still lives.
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When I stop working, it’s not to rest but to head to a soccer game or swimming lesson, or plan a Girl Scout meeting, or chaperone a school field trip. I treat myself like a machine, which makes it easy for the people I work and volunteer with to see and treat me that way too. “It’s been hard,” I say with a shrug, when asked how I’m doing, “but I’m hanging in there.” One day, my older child calls me out on my usual choice of words.
“How come you always tell people that you’re ‘hanging in there’?” she asks.
Well, I think, a bit defensively, because I am. Am I not still doing what needs to be done: getting up every morning and going to work, taking care of my family, saying yes to anything anyone asks me to do? I haven’t dropped a single ball at work. My publishing team has thanked me for my promptness in replying to their emails, for being so great to work with. I am an expert at grieving under capitalism. Watch and learn.
All the while, I keep daydreaming about walking into traffic.
From the moment the thought pushes its way into my grief-muddled brain, I know that I could never act on it. It’s not that I want to hurt myself—it’s that I cannot seem to work up any remorse when I think about no longer being alive. Nor does the thought frighten me, as it always did before. What if you didn’t have to feel this way anymore? my mind proposes, in moments that are deceptively calm, moments when I am not sobbing in the shower or screaming in my car because I cannot scream at home. What if the pain could just end?
As a child, I knew that I was not permitted to indulge in the hyperbolic or sarcastic statements other kids made about wanting to die, because my father would erupt. Toward the end of sixth grade, my teacher had everyone in my class write a fake will; my most charitable reading is that the exercise might have been intended to help us identify the things that were most important to us as we moved from elementary into middle school, symbolically leaving our childhoods behind. Most of my classmates made light of the task—I hereby bequeath my Game Boy to my little brother, because he always steals it anyway—but I remember little of what I wrote in my will, only my father’s fury over the assignment. “You’re 12 years old!” he yelled. He threatened to call my teacher. And then all the fight went out of him, his voice numb as he told me about being 21 years old and witnessing the death of his favorite cousin. The two of them had shared an apartment in a Cleveland high-rise, and one night my father came home to find him about to jump from their window. He pleaded with him, tried to stop him, but his cousin leaped before he could reach him. Dad had always blamed himself.
It takes me months, after his death, to realize that I am not fine, or hanging in there. I go to see my doctor for a long-overdue physical and break down in the exam room, sobbing as she hands me one flimsy tissue after another. I leave with a referral to a counseling practice, but manage to find one closer to my house, close enough to walk, because I know I’ll come up with a million reasons to reschedule or cancel otherwise.
During one early session, my therapist, the first Asian American therapist I’ve ever worked with, asks me if I know what has kept me from harming myself as I flounder in grief. I don’t even have to think about the answer. “My family,” I say. My children, who have no idea how dark my thoughts have become. My husband, who keeps our household afloat on days when I cannot manage anything beyond the workday. My sister, who faithfully checks on me every week. My mother, whom I text and call so often it probably annoys her. “The people I love still need me.”
“And you still need them,” she says. “You don’t want to leave them.”
I feel the truth of these words in my bones, try to keep them close.
Slowly, I find my footing again. When I catch myself faltering, fumbling in the dark for a thread to follow back to the person I was before, the thing that often keeps me from despair is talking with my mother. Sometimes I wish that she would voice some concrete need, ask me to do something for her, but she seems to be taking care of herself—it occurs to me that this might be easier than taking care of both herself and Dad, as much as she misses him. I can sense her sorrow and restlessness, always, but there is a driving, don’t-quit vitality about her, even in mourning.
One day, she tells me she has decided to get rid of Dad’s lift chair, and one of their old end tables. I never liked that table, Dad did. I am learning that I can make decisions based on what I want—that if I don’t like something, I can just make a change. Another day, we discuss whether she might get a dog; it has been a long time since she had one in the house. She sheepishly tells me she used some of the money I gave her to buy new miniblinds. “That’s perfect!” I say. I don’t care how she spends it, as long as it’s useful.
It’s hard for either of us to imagine her remarrying. But as she begins to plan the next stage of her life without my father, I realize that I can picture her living out her own days in peace—and, more important, it seems she can as well. My heart lifts when she tells me that she is planning a trip to Greece with two of her friends from church, intending to use what’s left of my father’s life-insurance payout to make her first-ever trip outside the country. They will visit monasteries and holy sites, see the sights, and swim in the sea; the trip is to be part pilgrimage, part escape.
After that adventure, I think, I will help her consider what she wants her new life to look like. I can be her sounding board, if nothing else. I know her ties to Oregon are strong after four decades there, but maybe someday she’ll decide that she wants to move closer to us on the East Coast. Or maybe we will relocate to the Northwest and provide more support to her once our kids are done with school. There’s no need to figure everything out now, I tell myself. Dad has been gone only a matter of months. We have time. Mom has time.
I feel certain she has never doubted, for a second, that living is worth it.
Chung is a TIME contributor and the author of A Living Remedy, from which this essay was adapted
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