On my first funeral in China, and the loss of my first close Chinese family member

When you’re married to a Chinese national, you’re privilege to a lot of things the average expat in China would never experience. The opportunity to be a Chinese bride or groom in an incredibly big, red wedding celebration (emphasis on the “big” and “red”). Spending that explosive holiday of Chinese New Year’s in the family home (where you get to see exactly how folks light those fireworks or learn how to make his mother’s homemade tofu). Watching your sister-in-law raise her only months-old infant and all of the pomp and circumstance this new addition to the family brings with her (such as the 100 days old celebration for my niece).

But then, there are the experiences you get to be privilege to — and wish you weren’t. Like a funeral in China.


How could I have been married to John for nearly 10 years (yes, that’s right, nearly a decade) and never experienced a funeral in China? Luck, perhaps. Or great genes. Sometimes, after seeing many of my close relatives pass away earlier before his — like my paternal grandfather in 2003, and my maternal grandfather in 2011 —  and remembering how I lost my own mother at the tender age of 17, I would think of his family somehow like a giant, extended version of the Energizer Bunny that just kept going and going. Of course they would always be there when we returned. Of course everyone would be fine. John’s family was somehow different. (Or at least, I wanted to kid myself into believing that was true.)

But then this morning, our smartphone rang and on the other end was John’s oldest brother, with the news that would usher in my unwanted invitation to this one experience I had never had before (or wanted).

John’s maternal grandfather — his only remaining grandfather — just passed away.

Grandpa at far right, along with Grandma and a cousin.

But shouldn’t we have seen this coming? Once the 2014 horse year galloped into our lives, grandfather kept trotting in and out of hospitals month after month. First it was that Chinese traditional medicine hospital near one of his daughters’ homes. Then it was the hospital in the county seat, where John’s grandmother — who has a heart condition — also joined him for a week or two. Then both of them once again went back into the hospital in the county seat for several weeks in May, only to return to their home the very afternoon before we moved to Hangzhou.

I remember squeezing in that last minute visit only two weeks before to Grandma’s house (Grandma was always the more talkative one, cracking jokes and her lovable grin, so we aways associated the place with her). It was just like any other visit in the past few months, where we found Grandpa lying in his bed in the far corner, looking a little beaten down from his many health concerns (heart, lungs, even his stomach) but still kicking and having survived yet another stay in the hospital. He only flashed us a weak smile from beneath the covers, with his leg akimbo. I told him, “Don’t worry, Hangzhou is so close to here. We’ll be able to visit you often!” Did I see relief in his eyes? A sense of comfort knowing we cared about him? Or maybe just the exhaustion from his time in the hospital? I couldn’t tell. But more importantly, I never realized that this would be the very last thing I would ever say to him, and the very last time I would ever see him alive.

Deep down, a sense of dread surrounds me with each passing moment. A part of me wants to believe it’s my fear of the funeral itself — that I’ve never before experienced a funeral in China, in the custom of my husband’s hometown. That my husband has only shared tidbits and small anecdotes that never even began to paint a picture of what it means to participate in a funeral. But I know that truthfully, what I fear the most is what that funeral signifies — that Grandpa is officially no longer with us.

Grandpa and Grandma, knitting hats one summer (a local industry) to earn some money.

And even though I’ve never felt as close to him as Grandma, I worry about her as well. We’ve all watched her health falter throughout the year and breathed a sigh of relief every time she returned home with the same grin and the same unexpected quips and jokes in her local dialect. But what now? How will she cope with an empty home? Will this be the experience that breaks her as well?

I remember how she told us earlier in the year, “I don’t want to die this year.” She’s 81 and for whatever reason, passing away at this age is somehow inauspicious. Personally, I think any passing is inauspicious and especially the people closest to us, the people we love most.

Grandpa’s passing has summoned us back once again to John’s hometown, just at the very moment when he and I seemed to be settling into life here in Hangzhou. And now I’m on the verge of experiencing a Chinese funeral and the loss that comes along with it.

But I’m also married to John and have the support of his family through this all — people who have experienced many a funeral in their lives. While I can’t say it’s a privilege to go through all of this, it is a relief and comfort to know I’m not alone in this process.

Eating a Grandma and Grandpa’s home during Chinese New Year.


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37 Replies to “On my first funeral in China, and the loss of my first close Chinese family member”

  1. My condolences on the loss of your Chinese grandfather. Such a cheerful looking man. Your “sense of dread” is natural. But it’s good you’re going to the funeral. It’s a ceremony that helps us face the unhappy reality of death and at the same time lend our support to other mourners.

  2. I am so sorry for your loss, Jocelyn and John. I think grandparents are a big influence in one’s life. We have to cherish the moments we get to share with them.

  3. Dear Jocelyn! My prayers and Sympathies for you and John in this great loss… I’d say that the love and memory you guys have for grandpa will be the strength that you will need for living this hard process….

  4. I am sorry to hear you have to deal with such a sad moment of life. Loosing people we care about is always the toughest time in life, no matter how prepared we thought we were. My condolences to you and your family.

  5. My condolences to you and John. Stay strong. I wasn’t close to my own paternal grandpa, much less my paternal grandma, but I still remember him for the times he used to bring me along to the local wet markets where he used to sell the produce he grew and then we would go for some food and I especially loved the curry mee soup we used to enjoy. Sometimes, he would slip some money to me and as a small kid then, it thought that was so much. I knew he loved me even though he never said so because that’s just Chinese. You will have all the family members and relatives to help you guys get through the funeral and the grieving. Just reassure you beloved grandma. Take care.

  6. My deep condolences to you Jocelyn. I remember the time when my grandpa passed away. Nice to see those pictures in him working for a winter hat.

  7. My condolence for you both. I never had grandparents as all of them passed away before I was born so I don’t have experienced the pain of losing someone close yet.
    It was great to see his pictures here as they show how happy and focused he was

  8. Hi J.E.,
    I am deeply sorry to read about your in-law’s passing. I will keep you and John’s family in our prayers.

  9. I’m sorry for yours and John’s loss, Jocelyn. Last time I experienced funerals was when I was a little girl back in Russia. My paternal grandparents, G-d rest their souls, passed away in Russia and although we were affected, my family didn’t attend the funerals. Few months back, my great-aunt, G-d rest her soul, passed away, and we went to a funeral Jewish style.

    I hope its okay, *hugs*

  10. Jocelyn, I’m very sorry for your loss. Seeing the picture of grandma and grandpa up there, sitting together so happily, really tugged at my heart. It will be difficult going through a funeral in a foreign country, but with John and his family by your side I know you’ll be fine. And from what I have read about your experiences with John and his family, I know grandma is in very good hands despite the recent loss. That’s the thing about Chinese families: They stick together and support one another no matter what.

    My prayers go out to you and John.

  11. I’m very sorry for your loss. Funerals are a heavy ordeal in any culture, but I hope you can give each other comfort in this time of sorrow.

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