My Grandma Passed Away

My mom's mom passed away this week. Over the years, we saw each other across maybe a dozen different visits, usually in California, once in Canada. I have terrible memory, which isn't helped by the fact that I'm still not talking to my family, but I'll get into that part later. She always sent us money for Chinese New Year, we usually stayed with them when we visited, and when we were there, we went to church with them so they could introduce us to their friends. We saw each other enough for me to be grateful for their presence in my life.

My immediate family grew up on its own, which is a bit unusual for Vietnamese refugees from what I've seen. Most families collect in little pods together, the official term being diaspora, so there are lots of hotbeds for Vietnamese communities in big places like France, California, Toronto. Then there are the families which found themselves in seemingly random, smaller communities like Saskatoon. In Edmonton, there's a decent sized Vietnamese population, which is surprising given its complete opposite climate to home. Who could forget the day Edmonton was colder than Antarctica? Alas, I was accustomed to growing up somewhat alone. Certainly, we had a church community and family friends who adopted us into their own family and invited us to their karaoke nights, but there was always that separation from not being truly family. Not only did we not have any extended family in town, but I personally grew up somewhat as a loner. To be sure, I had friends and was invited to birthdays and sleepovers and I had three brothers, but I developed a peace around the awkward pain of feeling alone. Even though I grew up in a crowd, I was lonely.

Thus, trips to see family in California were pretty cool. We had people who would take us in, treat us out, and do all those fun things that families do. I'm grateful for the time I had with my grandma, and I'm not mourning for the time we couldn't have. I know that's a major feature for most people surrounding the pain and suffering of losing a loved one and that I'm glossing over it pretty quickly, but grieving for something over which you have no control can be dangerous. It can easily become a source of infinite suffering, so while it's normal to think thoughts about lost time and opportunities, that kind of pain isn't always constructive. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" isn't true in this scenario. I say this having lived in that mentality and its associated pain for a long time, feeling sorry for myself for not having the father or family that I wanted. I'm grateful for the experiences I did have with my family because it helped shape who I am today, but despite all that, it damaged me in a lot of ways and I do not see an overlap in our interests moving forward. We'll get back to this topic later on.

Her death was expected. Because it felt imminent, the extended family organized three reunions within the last five years or so. Carrie and I went to two of those, and we got to see the extended family last year when we went to Coachella. During the first reunion in 2012, she and I went to visit my grandparents on our own, where we talked for a good hour uninterrupted. I think in that time, I spoke with my grandparents more than I had in my entire life. I learned about how intelligent my uncles and aunts were, usually top performers in their schools. One aunt was praised by their teacher for her artistic writing despite having only just moved to the country and starting to learn the language. One uncle was a top piano player in his teacher's class. "He played with so much emotion." You could tell my grandparents were fiercely proud of all of them. Since I had never really spoken much with them until that point, I felt like I had just inherited the family secrets. They were well to do back in Vietnam, and their jewelry business did well in California as well. It's not necessarily much to hang onto, but that one hour is how I'll remember my grandma. That and when we visited during Coachella, my grandma's mind had slipped deeper into dementia, and all she could remark on was how tall I was. I think she said that about eight times during our short visit over dinner, but it was cute and funny how amazed she was, even though I inherited my height from my grandpa.

That's all to say that I know I had the privilege of having at least one set of grandparents around. I never met my dad's parents, and it wasn't until later in life that we met his side of the family in Vietnam. Some people don't even have that. I know there are people with smaller immediate families and no extended family to speak of. We weren't the most objectively lonely family, but it highlights how fortunate I was to meet and know my mom's mom. I'm sad that the whole family is sad. I haven't experienced the death of a close family member yet, but in a way, I lost my whole immediate family. I mourned my loss of them for the first six months of this year, but it's weird because they're still alive. Even though it's been only a brief moment, my grief this week hasn't been so much about losing my grandma so much as it's been about reaffirming why I don't want to reconnect with my parents and brothers.

During this time, my immediate family of origin is trying to reconcile with me. Rather, they're just hoping I'd get so emotional that I'd drop my case against them and let them back into my life. It's highly opportunistic and inappropriate. Indeed, some have told me I should reach out to them in this time. For my family of origin, the big events in life are the core substance of the human experience, whereas I care much more for the day to day interactions where actual relationships take place. Carrie and I don't even really celebrate our wedding anniversary as much as we celebrate having a weeknight to spend together. The death of my grandma should be about the death of my grandma, not about teaching me a lesson. They think I'll be so sad that I'll come running back to them for comfort, but I already reached the lowest point of my life just a few months ago and I didn't need them. Certainly, a death in the family should inspire a person to reconsider their relationships, to give the deceased's life and death more meaning. Alas, I don't really see my family trying too hard to make things right with me outside of the big events, like my brothers' weddings, our birthdays, and deaths in the family. They all messaged me around my birthday, but I think they did it mostly to alleviate their guilt. Other than that, they have reached out through third parties mostly in an attempt to force me to talk to them again, but I know they only want to JADE with me, an acronym I learned from r/raisedbynarcissists meaning Justify, Argue, Defend, and Explain. I have called my dad a few times to negotiate peace, but even though he says he'll do anything to get me back, he doesn't try that hard. They're all used to me giving them whatever they want with only minor protesting, so like Trump voters, they want to go back to the way things were when they could profit from openly oppressing someone. Given my accusations of years of emotional abuse and gaslighting, I think it's reasonable to expect that they try a little harder. I'm ready and willing to receive their genuine apology, but I don't think it's coming soon.

This is the life they chose. I changed some boundaries and started playing hard ball with them all of a sudden, but they don't want to engage. They still deny that they abused me, and they hold that even if they did, I should put up with it because that's what families do. I can handle a crazy family, but I refuse to resume subjecting myself to a toxic one. I wish they were just crazy. Select friends will recall how much I used to complain about them, with spit and foam flying from my mouth, before I divorced them. I'm so glad I don't have to subject people to that kind of talk anymore. No one wants to hear that, and I really don't want to talk or write about it. Because we can't come to an agreement, I don't engage with their lives, meaning I don't celebrate with them in their highs or grieve with them in their lows. Similarly, they don't take on my burdens, not like they really did before anyways, and they don't get to celebrate anything with me. They won't get to know the kids that Carrie and I will have, but they also don't have to babysit. There have been two deaths in the extended family in the past year, and because my parents and brothers don't want to try with me, I won't attend any funerals with them.

That's been the theme of this week. The stress I've undergone has been around explaining to people why I'm still not talking to my family. I am sad that my grandma is gone. I'm sad that I can't go to the funeral to help my extended family grieve. Alas, they're a big enough pod, so they can comfort each other. I'll process my emotions with my family of choice.

Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le