Almond-shaped grief fatigue
Earlier this year, I found myself scoffing at the protagonist in Sohn Won-pyung’s “Almond.”
In the Korean author’s 2020 novel, “unordinary” Yun-jae finds himself mixed with ordinary families, ordinary classmates, and an even more ordinary society, where a child like him is expected to cry when he is struck, laugh when someone cracks a joke, or tilt his head when he hears an unfamiliar word.
I was put off by Yun-jae’s attitude at first: He shows no remorse when he sees a boy being beaten to death, and he needs to be constantly reminded “about how one should act such and such in this and that situation.”
The “almonds”—normally called the amygdalae—at the back of Yun-jae’s skull do not function well, so when these are stimulated, he does not feel fear or anger, joy or sorrow.
“What a strange little boy,” I immediately thought to myself, not realizing that I was no different from the ordinary people that forced Yun-jae to become an outcast.
But it is even stranger that I find myself these days unable to properly grieve the lives that we continue to lose in a seemingly never-ending battle with a health crisis that is now rapidly claiming the lives of people close to me.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I needed no reminder that I had to reach out to a friend when they lost a loved one to a chronic illness or an unfortunate accident.
“Hey, I heard about what happened. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m here if you need to talk, OK?” was my automatic response when texting them. It varies depending on the depth of my relationship with the bereaved. Sometimes, it’s “My condolences, [name]. I’m so sorry.” And I meant the words all the same.
There were nights when I’d also weep for their loss, even if I had never actually met the person whose death they were grieving. But now I am ashamed to admit even to my closest friends that I am tired of grieving, that it takes a lot of effort for me to say, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” or “My condolences, sir,” or “Tell me anything, I’m here for you.”
Now, when somebody says they lost a loved one, I automatically turn off my phone, set it aside and think, “I’ll save it for later. I can’t do this right now. I can’t believe I’ll have to grieve again. I’m not in the right headspace for this.”
It is through these anxiety-induced reflections that I realized that the pandemic did not only take lives—it took the overwhelming weight of grief, too.
I am ashamed to say that I may have been desensitized, that the blinding rage I felt for the ineptitude of this government has left me thoughtless and unfeeling.
Earlier this month, a beloved superior at work died of cardiac arrest. His son later confirmed that he tested positive for COVID-19. I had worked with him in the first two years of my job, but I found myself unable to react as one was expected to.
Why am I not feeling enough pangs of pain in my chest? Why don’t I feel a burning behind my eyes? It shouldn’t take me this long to react to the death of someone who had unknowingly motivated me to become better at my job. So why am I not grieving? When did I become so selfish?
Facebook and Twitter posts about the death of a loved one now send me to a different kind of depressive spiral: I no longer know how to grieve. Like Yun-jae in “Almond,” I actively force myself to react and give my condolences. I have to remind myself that this is a life lost and that a family will never see a parent, a daughter, or a son again in the flesh.
All this is to say that I know—deep down—that I will still be there for my friends and family who need comfort, but not before feeling guilty that I need time to compose myself into a state of grief.
In “Almond,” the walls of Yun-jae’s home were plastered with sticky notes reminding him to return a smile, join when friends are bursting into laughter, and cry when others are sad.
I fear that I may one day need the same method to force tears to form, to will my body to shake with anguish.
But what I fear most at this time is that I would brush off a death as if it were an inconvenience: “Oh, another death? What a shame. Well, I have to go back to work now.”
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“Alyza Masinag,” 24, cannot recommend “Almond” by Sohn Won-pyung enough. Here’s an excerpt she’d like to share: “I couldn’t let them find out that I was different. If I did, I would stand out, which would make me a target… It was now time to master exceptional acting skills to hide my abnormality.”
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