How we remember them: My grandmother’s shirt | Coronavirus pandemic

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In the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, loss has been part of the lives of millions. In “How we remember them”, we reflect on how we process that loss and the things – both tangible and intangible – that remind us of those we have lost. 

I learned of grief in 2003 when my grandmother, Youa Lee, died. I was 22 years old and a senior in college at the time.

My Hmong American family had been refugees. The adults had lived through the loss of friends and neighbours; they had suffered the loss of a country and everything it contained. But I was born in the refugee camps, a stateless child, living only with the remnants. Because of the love around me, it was enough.

The oldest person I knew was my grandmother. In that hot place of waiting, I made her promise me she would never die:

Beneath the shimmering leaves, sitting at her feet on the smooth dirt, six-year-old me would say: “Pog, promise me you’ll never die.” My grandmother would respond: “That is a promise I cannot make. I, like all living things, will die one day, and by the time I die, you’ll be ready to learn how to live without me.” I’d tell her: “But I won’t.” Then, I’d cry. At first the tears were hiccups in my throat, then they grew hands and feet and crawled up my body, until the cries fell from my mouth. Grandma would say: “Why are you crying? Don’t cry. Pog is just speaking the truth.” In between the rise and fall of my breaths, I’d tell her: “I don’t want your truth. I just want you.” My grandmother would give in; “Fine then. I won’t die. I promise.”

Her promise and her presence were enough for me for many years, until 2003, when I had to face a truth beyond her or me, when the only thing I could cling to in those final days was the simple fact that there were people who had loved my grandmother before me. I came to understand that somewhere beyond me, there was a place filled with her mother and father, brothers and sisters, my grandfather, her most precious girl, waiting.

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