Through Life and Death

“…And when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine,
That all the world will be in love with night,
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”

William Shakespeare,
Romeo and Juliet 


Hari Raya was eventful this year. 

It felt good to finally have a “proper” celebration and overnight stay at my hometown after two years of Covid. The ever-present tray of hot coffee in the living room, P. Ramlee films playing on the TV, and the laughter of my happy-go-lucky Uncle Hahak (who got his name for his habit of laughing at the tiniest, unfunniest things) felt like a warm blanket around my shoulders. 

Being an introvert, though, I sorely needed the time and space to be alone and reenergize after a while. And that was how I planned to spend what was left of the week when I got home. 

Suddenly there was news of another uncle of mine, who I had last seen just a few months ago. He was admitted into the hospital after a small heart attack, and my parents invited me to visit him. 

But I was still feeling tired, and not in a good shape to meet people. And honestly, I downplayed my uncle’s situation at the time. He had a history of hospital admissions, so a part of me did think, “Well, maybe it’s not too bad. It’s just a small heart attack after all. I’m sure he has gone through worse.”

The next thing I knew was a pang of regret that cut me deeper than anything I’ve ever felt before. 

On Monday evening, Mom brought the news that he had just passed away. 

It was “just a small heart attack”. The inner monologue kept replaying itself in my head, ringing louder and louder.

In that morning, that small heart attack suddenly turned into multiple organ failures.

I wish I could take back my words, even though they were only spoken in my head. 

It’s odd that you only start to miss the tiniest things in a person once they’re gone.

Among many of those things, I miss how I’d look forward to visiting his home every time there was an occasion. Growing up very shy, I didn’t feel like this around many relatives, but he somehow knew how to make me feel comforted.

I miss the warmth and love that he emanated, especially in his hugs. He was a huge Pakistani man, and every time we walked into his home or said goodbye, he’d open up his arms and say “Can’t I get a hug?”. He wasn’t one to speak very much, but you knew you were loved. Hugs were his love language.

That night we went to his home and did our Tahlil recitations. His lifeless body was in the living room, waiting to be buried the next morning. The moment his wife uncovered his face and kissed it, I couldn’t hold myself from tearing up. 

It instantly brought back memories of another dear uncle that I had lost five years ago. They both looked so peaceful, as though they were only sleeping. And also similar to what I experienced last time, there was this surreal feeling of “I can’t believe he’s really gone.” I guess you never think about the last time you might see somebody, because it’s too comfortable to delude yourself into believing that they’re going to be in your life forever. 

The next day, I brought up this loss to my therapist, Sophia (not really her name). And in my reflection, I mentioned that as sad as I felt, there was also a beautiful feeling — I felt an appreciation of just how delicate life is, how valuable the people in your life are, and how there’s so little time for you to waste away on trivial matters. 

In turn, we started discussing how grief is something that never really goes away — at different points in our life, it comes back — but every time it does, we get to work through it a little further. 

Sophia guided me through a common exercise that she practices with grieving clients, which was to reflect on the values that the people we’ve lost had brought into our life. 

Because essentially, that’s a healthy way to deal with loss. It’s about acknowledging that while people inevitably pass away, they still live in us in some shape or form. There were certainly some values in those people that have shaped us into becoming who we are today, and we can choose to honor their memory by embodying those values as best we can. 

I thought about my uncle, and I had always known him to be a soft-spoken and gentle person. I might not have known him as well as someone who spent every day in his company, but we always did hear about how he wouldn’t react in anger, and that even if he did, he was quick to cool himself down before the situation escalated any further.

I thought too about the uncle I had lost five years ago, and I’ve always remembered him as a joker. No matter what he was going through, he always managed to find the humor in it, to make us laugh. I remember our hospital visits, even the last ones — how we’d be there to sympathize and feel sorry for him, but he was the one cracking up jokes. 

I guess as simple as that thought may be, it’s a comfort to know that while their lives have ended, their values live on. They may be physically gone, but we carry their memory, through life and death. 

To those I’ve loved and lost, may you be placed among the righteous. 

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