Conversation with Krissi Driver from the United States who lives and works in South Korea
Kasia - How do you feel when you think or talk about your father and his death which happened over 20 years ago?
Krissi - My dad died in 1996 when I was a child. It was a really difficult time for me and it took me over 20 years to fully close that wound. When I think about my dad today, I wonder what his life and my life might be like if he were still alive.
I do wish my dad was here and that I had been able to have a relationship with him as an adult. My dad was very funny and did a lot of strange things. He grew up on a farm, so when I see my uncles and aunts, they often tell stories about my dad as a child or ridiculous things they did together. So when I hear those wild tales of things he had done, I just wish I had more opportunities to have him in my adult life.
When I think about all this, it doesn’t hurt the way it has in the past, but there is a hole that will never be fully filled. I have realised that the older I’ve gotten, the more I have learned to accept and acknowledge that.
Kasia - Do you like talking about your father?
Krissi - I do. I have a lot of respect for him. What I love most about what I know of him, is his life’s passion to work with children. He was a pastor and on a Sunday morning he was running a special children’s service and he loved it. I think he is the reason I enjoy working with children now. I probably inherited it from my dad and that makes me feel like I have a special connection with him.
Kasia - When we spoke last time, you said that spending more time with your father’s family would have helped you in your grieving process. Why?
Krissi - To answer your question, I will need to tell you what actually happened. My father wanted to be a Christian missionary for a long time. In 1996 we moved to Lithuania after his trip there in 1995 during which he visited some missionary friends. At that time, my father had been sick but everyone thought he had minor pneumonia. We had been living in Lithuania for about 3 weeks when my dad had a seizure. I actually saw it and, to this day, it is the scariest thing I've ever seen.
The emergency service took him to the hospital and discovered he had a brain tumour. They said that they didn't know how bad it was and where it was coming from, but it was cancerous and they couldn’t take care of him there in Lithuania. We were supposed to live there for 2 years, but after 3 weeks, we went back to the United States and moved back to a tiny farming community where my dad grew up and his parents still lived. A few weeks after that, my father died.
We were living at that point next to my father’s family, so you would think that we spent a lot of time grieving together, but we really didn’t. A few months after his death, when school ended, my mother, sister and I moved away and actually for three or four years, I didn’t see my dad’s family at all. One part of that was because I just felt I couldn’t go back to where I knew he had died and also I really didn’t know how to express my feelings. So it was a really isolating experience for me. I was starting puberty and there was just so much emotional stuff going on. My mother’s family also didn’t really know how to help me so I felt like I had no one to talk to, no one to understand my grief, so I was just mad all the time.
I think anger is such a big part of grief and the way that we grieve. And some things just never go away. To this day, I still get mad about stuff my mum did after my father died. I know that she was 34 at the time and lost her husband unexpectedly. She did not have a college education, only two years at Bible school - that’s it. She didn’t have a job but had two young children to care for. She had no clue what to do and must have been just terrified.
Her mother, my grandmother, played a really large role in how things were handled in the immediate aftermath. When my dad died, she convinced my mom to come and live with them, discounting the fact that maybe my sister and I needed to be with our dad’s family. I blame my grandmother more than my mum for my own struggle to deal with my grief, because I think my mum was just in this grief-stricken moment of being disabled and not knowing what to do. She just went to what she knew.
Kasia - And your grandmother probably just didn't know how to better support her and you.
Krissi - Right. It wasn’t that my grandmother did anything malicious but it was definitely selfish. She just didn’t know how to deal with it either and her way to help us was, ‘Come and let me fix it’. I still get mad about that because I feel like those early years before my mom got remarried were in a way stolen from me. I can’t do anything about it now but it’s still something that I will probably never fully heal. It bothers me that somebody made the choices for me and they weren’t probably the best choices.
I wish that I would have had a chance to grieve more with my dad’s family because, in my own grief, I didn't realise they also were grieving. In 2015, I went to my grandmother’s – my dad’s mother's funeral – and to be there grieving with my family and talking about my dad was really healing. I didn’t know that I needed it so much. The first time I had been with my dad’s family for Christmas was when I was in the US living there in 2017. It had been 21 years since I had been at a family holiday gathering. And it was wonderful, we had so much fun. I love being with my family. And I think that spending more time with them would have been a really positive experience, even if my mom didn't go.
Kasia - Was there anything which helped you to feel a little bit better when your dad died? Did you have a friend or a teacher who was supportive or an activity you really enjoyed doing?
Krissi - My teacher that year was fantastic. She herself had had cancer several years before and had to have a leg amputated. She must have been near retirement. I think that the experience of having cancer herself, being afraid, and all of those decades of teaching in the same farming community helped her to understand what I was going through. She was just so patient, kind and loving. She really helped me, more than I realised at the time. I think about her actually pretty often.
Part of the reason why I felt so alone is because I didn’t have anybody else. I had school friends at the school that I met just a few months before, but I didn’t go back to school for three weeks after my dad’s death.
Kasia - And also your school friends met you when you and your family were going through your father’s illness so did not have a chance to meet you properly.
Krissi - Exactly. They had all lived there their entire lives. It was not a situation where I was not liked by my peers, that was never an issue. But it was hard because I didn’t have close friends who knew me well. Then we moved away, and three years later again and again. So I never really had some I could call an ‘old friend’. Someone I could call and say ‘I am struggling’. I also was not very close with my mum and my sister. When I started university, I found ‘my people’ and although I don’t think I talk with them about my dad, we do talk about things which are important to me. I just think I have already moved away from the grief of my father’s loss.
Kasia - In your comment under the post about my project on the Folkalist Instagram account, you wrote that grief shapes and reshapes us in so many different ways. You said that although you feel like your grieving process is completed, you still experience some emotions when you think about your loss. How has your loss and the way you grieved, shaped you?
Krissi - The wound of my loss is closed, but there is always a scar, right? That part never goes away. So when I talk about my experience I mainly think about the anger and the loneliness that I experienced. So it is like rubbing this scar and remembering what that felt like.
Over the years, I have learned more about myself from talking with my family and hearing about things my dad did. Hearing those things has really helped me connect with my dad in a way that I hadn’t been able to do before.
Reflecting on everything that I went through as a young person makes me think that our choices and experiences shape us in a way, but when we get older and learn more about the people in our past, also those we lost, it kind of reshapes our own perspective. For example, I think often about my career and the connections that I’ve found in the last few years with my dad. That has really changed my perspective on the choices that I have made. I realised that I want to be more like my dad, be generous of heart and spirit and make the world a better place. He wanted to do all those things, even if he never said it out loud.
Kasia - You have mentioned that your family was very religious when you were growing up. Would you be able to tell me how the religion (Pentecostal Christianity) has shaped the way you grieved?
Krissi - Yes, my family was really religious, obviously. The night before my dad died was Halloween. As kids, we were not allowed to go trick and treating because my father was a pastor so if his kids went trick and treating, it might look bad! So the night before he died, we were all at home. We talked very openly about the fact that my dad had cancer, we saw him losing his hair and taking tonnes of medication. On that day he asked me ‘do you worry about me?’ I said ‘yes’, and then he said: ‘You don't need to worry. Jesus is going to heal me.’ The next day, he died.
Although my father had stage four cancer, he was just completely convinced that he was going to be miraculously healed, we were going to go back to Lithuania and he was going to be better as this was just a period of sickness. That was the way we talked about it at home. So him telling me that he was going to be healed, and then dying less than 24 hours later was my first question mark towards my religion. It was like the first sign to me that my religion didn’t actually reflect what I believed in. And I must say I struggled a lot with that for a very long time.
Kasia - I know that you have been living in South Korea for 8 years so I wanted to ask you whether there is anything particular you noticed about South Koreans' approach towards death and dying. What differences do you notice between your culture and theirs?
Krissi - There are many things Korean people are very willing to share with foreigners, but there are things they want to keep for themselves. The death and grieving process is one of those things. So to be honest, I don’t know a whole lot about it.
Not so long ago, I went to my friend’s mother’s viewing. She had cancer and died in a hospice. We went to a small room, in the same building, reserved just for her family, where there was a photo of her mother and some mats. We all bowed to her mother’s image in the photo. Exactly 50 days after her death, my friend met again with her family to remember and acknowledge that her mother passed away.
A couple of weeks ago, I asked my friend how she was doing and I don’t really think she knew how to answer me. Because people don’t ask that here. We don’t talk often about death and dying in the West, but here absolutely nobody talks about it because Korean people don’t really talk about their feelings.
Krissi Driver is a freelance writing coach and content creator based in South Korea. A life-long teacher and monitor, she teaches self-motivated women how to start a freelance writing business through a 6-week course so they can supplement or replace their full-time income and build a life they love. You can download Krissi's free freelance writing ebook, 7 Steps to Start a Profitable Freelance Writing Business, at her website, www.krissidriver.com. Find her on Instagram @krissidriver.