On Death

Anthropologists have written a lot about deaths, about how controversial the ways people come to terms with the moment when their loved ones die might be (Scheper-Hughes, 1992). Or once their loved ones have passed how they talk about them, how their stories are being told over and over again, and how these stories are related directly to how the nation and the collective come to terms with its divided and violent past (Kwon, 2013). Deaths are in essence revealing, essential, and philosophical. They affect the individual, the collective, and the national.

Death and dying have been on my mind a lot lately. Partly it has to do with COVID-related anxiety. I watch the news on a daily basis, and everyday I am reminded of the number of people around me who have left this earth, or how terrible their final moments were. Partly, one of my close relatives is in and out of hospital in Vietnam with a terminal cancer disease. Chemotherapy has disfigured his body. It has made him age faster than anything I knew in life. I remembered when my mom told me that one of my cousins had given birth to a stillborn, when I was far away in Atlanta in my first semester in college, I cried. I cried for the baby. I cried because I did not know where to go, or with whom can I grieve. The act of grieving alone was terrifying, and terrible.

A few weeks ago I decided to pick up the novel Three Junes. It had been on my reading list for a while. And finally I got to read it. It took me a month to read bits and pieces of it. At the beginning, it saddened me because the novel was about death. Pages after pages talk about how a person deals with death in different situations: disease-related death, old-age natural death, suicide, etc. It made me depressed. It made me anxious about different ways that one can lose their loved ones, and different terrifying ways that one has to face death, process it, and overcome it. These thoughts scared me. The novel however takes a positive turn at the end when it talks about the continuity of life, of birth, and that death and life are intertwined, and that death is a part of life. Death is not negation of life, but simple a part of it. This ending makes my heart lighter. However, the reality, and the encompassing feeling that death is surrounding me could not really go away.

This might be a question for myself: how can I process, understand, overcome death when it’s an abstract concept, and not necessarily related directly to me. In the context of COVID-19, when a society observes on daily basis its members disappear because of a virus, at the end of the journey, how can this society process death collectively? Is religion helpful here? Is it time? Is it public memorial? Is it storytelling? What would help us collectively come to terms with a huge number of deaths in such a short time?

As a kid I never understood Spirit Medium. My mom was into it. My relatives would go to thầy cúng, bà đồng (or people who serve the (Holy) Reflections). Sometimes they would go to these events together to talk to the dead. Sometimes the dead would manifest in one of them, and talk to the living. I have never been to one of those events, but I would often hear stories about these events worked. Now I understand somewhat. That is a way for them collectively, as a family unit to process the loss of loved ones, and feel that the dead are always a part of the living’s life. This is how integral death is as a part of life. This is a part of Vietnamese practices of Veneration of the Dead. It might be also a way for many families who lost their loved ones to find justice for them after a bloody, violent, and unjust war.

My mind might be still being visited by the idea of death for a while. At least, now I am more comfortable with articulating my ambivalent feeling around it. Maybe I should discuss it with someone. Maybe I should go to a commemoration to grieve with others. As of now, I am still trying to process the abstract idea.