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In memoriam.

Travis Chi Wing Lau//

TW: end of life, death, dying

In 2019, I wrote about my grandmother transitioning to hospice care. At the time, we feared the worst, for she had experienced a traumatic fall in her own home and was discovered unconscious hours later. After the incident, she seemed to have lost her capacity for speech and much of her awareness of her surroundings. For a woman in her late nineties, it was a matter of time, but it was the rapidity and severity of her decline that worried us. A proud woman of vigorous independence (un)made despite her longevity.

Nearly two years later, I am in the thick of mourning. Not just over my grandmother’s death, but now the death of my uncle who passed away overseas of acute heart failure. I am soon to lose another uncle to stomach cancer. How do I mourn the enormity of this kind of loss that only seems to multiply exponentially, to stack upon itself in the face of an ongoing global pandemic? I have been asking this question of myself repeatedly over these past six months as I lost one family member after another without the opportunity to say goodbye (as if it were reducible to a single gesture, turn of phrase). The pandemic has made the goodbye, itself, dangerous and unethical. Then how do I mourn in a way I have never learned to mourn before?  

I am reminded of what bears repeating: that closure remains a privilege. My uncle has not yet been put to rest—his ashes still abroad in Shanghai. Both my grandmother’s and uncle’s estates remain unresolved (and arguably more in disarray). They feel in a perverse way still alive, as the affairs of their lives have now become our responsibility, to be lived out through us. I struggle most with this in-betweenness, of their undeath that obligates the living to muddle through what feels, to me, utterly beside the point. The cruel metamorphosis of a life into a series of mundane legal proceedings, petty quarrels over money and assets that will inevitably unravel a family that was far less connected that it claimed to be. Barthes couldn’t be more right: “As soon as someone dies, frenzied construction of the future (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania.”[1] Frenzied, furious, immediate. The ugliness is in the fighting over that future and whose futures benefit from those that have been foreclosed.

If the pandemic is characterized by a persistent presentness that refuses to allow us to look away (or at least some of us), such imaginings of the future feel again perverse. We have to move on, so the injunction goes. But what if I refuse? That refusal, of course, necessitates pain. But pain I’m used to. It is the morass of feelings that accompany grief—melancholia, perhaps—that I feel adrift in now without the comfort of mooring. But if we take seriously Freud’s distinction between mourning and melancholia as one of enduring attachment to that which has been lost, I am clearly not ready to put things to rest. As David Eng and David Kazanjian put it, “while mourning abandons lost objects by laying their histories to rest, melancholia’s continued and open relation to the past finally allows us to gain new perspectives on and new understandings of lost objects.”[2]

I refuse to abandon them when they have yet to be put to rest. So too shall I remain in motion.

[1] Mourning Diary. trans. Richard Howard. Hill and Wang, 2009. 27.

[2] Loss: The Politics of Mourning. eds. David Eng and David Kazanjian. Berkeley and Los Angeles: UC Press, 2003. 4.

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