Blog: From Grieving to Receiving Peace with my Beloved Sister, Monique Minh-Ha Nguyen

While on a Zoom call with my friends this week, I sat quietly observing an exchange between two smart, fun, and awakened gals. Our conversation was engaging, organic, and uplifting until I heard Cammie interject, “Jo, I heard you say you are happy, but I sense a deep sadness in your eyes. Am I reading that right?”  (Names have been changed for privacy.)

Somehow hearing Cammie’s keen attunement to Jo’s emotional state, pierced through my consciousness, connecting me to the depth of my own sadness and despair. My beloved sister’s face appeared in my mind. My eyes scanned to the bookshelf on the far side of my office. A photo of my sister, Minh, with Jasmine and Justin, her kids, my kids, and two cousins standing together (pre-covid) for a perfect picture moment. The celebratory smiles radiated as we stood next to the decorated high school graduate, Jasmine, in a bright gold gown, wrapped with orchids and a blue sash.  

In every future family graduation, wedding, and birthday celebration, I know my sister’s spirit will be with us. I will see her sparkling smile, hear her exuberant loud laughter, and feel her vibrant warm energy. 

My sister passed away about 100 days ago. I still feel her presence. I miss talking with her — hearing stories about her adult kids, work, and life. We were taught to keep going, be strong no matter how much pain we are feeling, suppress our emotions, and keep moving. In a world with Instagram, we live with perfect life syndrome.

After Minh’s burial, I woke up each morning, did my work, stayed busy, and kept moving. Now I know that suppressing my emotions, denying their existence, suffocating my inner voice is not sustainable or healthy long term. 

As the youngest of 7 siblings, I am, admittedly, the black sheep in the family. That meant I followed my own instincts, beliefs, and questioned cultural traditions and faith, especially when the morals were not aligned with my personal experience and world views. If the teachings from the elders encouraged the following beliefs: a patriarchal dominant view, suppressing women’s rights, supporting an immoral 45, creating followers, not leaders, generating a disservice to myself, women or humanity, I would speak up. Over the years, I was known to make the following statements which were cringe-worthy to some members of my family. 

Are we not aware or conscious of our own thoughts and actions? If so, why do we feel the need to be told and preached how to think, act, and live every Sunday? The most effective lessons for our kids are demonstrated through our own words and actions, seen or unseen. What is the point of a marriage when one feels unhappy, lonely, and verbally abused?  Women who are obliged to live in servitude, service, sacrifice, and suffering are experiencing what they wish to experience.  

My sister didn’t always agree with my world views and beliefs, but she did indulge and put up with me. Regardless of our differences at times, she is and will always be my beloved sister.  

Can you love and respect someone and still disagree with the choices they made? Can you change someone if they are not ready for a change? The only way I was able to navigate through this was to live my life in alignment with my personality and values. Living and acting with full integrity with my values and beliefs allowed my light to shine, and dark moments to be seen too. I am human like you, and the 7 billion people on this planet.  

As I grieve for my sister, below is a letter I wrote to her after she passed. We never had a chance to discuss and talk openly. The cancer had metastasized too quickly. At one point, she asked me, “Just tell me what to do, Thuy (my Vietnamese name), and I’ll do it.” She was ready for the excavation and replanting. But I didn’t have the tools, skills, or the equanimity to churn the soil, re-seed, and water the seedling for new growth. I’m sorry, Minh. I’m so sorry, I couldn’t do more to help you. I desperately wanted to. 

How could we unbury, excavate, and rewire belief systems that form the foundations of our character, our identity, and our self-esteem?  As a Business Coach, my life’s mission is to help others achieve their goals. I am building a community, cultivating ideas, and curating tools to help professionals and entrepreneurs gain clarity, take action and live purposefully standing in their true powers — particularly Asian women.

Dear Minh, (written on September 15, 2020)

I had a vision of us growing old together. I was sitting in your garden, smelling the fragrant flowers of star jasmine — your favorite flower named for your daughter — along with California poppies, azaleas, lilies, hydrangeas, orchids, and stargazers. On the side yard was your tomato, herbs, and vegetable garden. You and Tammy were busy stirring in the kitchen. Canh as usual is teaching the kids how to golf, swim, or play tennis. Calvin was pontificating about the next political coup while Chi Tam, our eldest sister, was praying for his soul. Each of us has our thing. 

The kids are no longer kids. They have grown with their careers, big jobs, families, and children of their own. They are living full and busy lives. We are sitting together around the dinner table telling stories and reminiscing about the good old days. You have a smile on your face, feeling very proud of the children and who they have become. While I will experience this with you in another life, space and time, I want you to know the impact you’ve had on me and so many others.  

Having you as an older sister for half a century taught me three important lessons that shaped who I have become.

First, you lived with a fearless determination to create the life you want for yourself. Growing up, I always watched you and Tammy make decisions. If we didn’t have money to buy fashionable clothes, you bought fabric, thread, patterns and you designed your own clothes. I remember the three navy blue vest suits that you, Tammy, and I wore to St. Barbara Church that made us look like triplets. In high school, I remembered the bright pink polyester pants, the mini-skirts, and the oversized shirts with big bulky shoulder pads. Our clothes were oversized because you always bought things off the sales rack. It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I discovered there were clothes made for my size. 

The second example of your fearless determination was when we moved to the house on Douglas Street, we didn’t have artwork to decorate the walls. You bought paint, canvas and decided we were going to create abstract art. With three large rectangular canvas panels set on the garage floor, you called Bill, Hien, Canh, Tammy, and I together. For about an hour, we flung and splattered blobs of acrylic paint everywhere. Most of it landed on the newspaper and some on the canvas. You proudly hung that centerpiece in our family room. What you taught me was, if you don’t have something you want, go make it happen.  

Third, you expressed your love through your actions. You were the glue that held our family together and kept us strong. I have endless examples of how you showed your compassion and love, but here are a few moments that I will always remember. When I left home for the first time to go to college. I felt lost and alone. You showed up on the weekends with groceries and made me feel supported — I can do this!  I also enjoyed being the third wheel on your dinner dates at Fuji Khan, Taiko, Todai, and all your favorite restaurants. When I was in high school, you and Tammy were in college — every time you allowed me to go out with you to the movies, dances, or parties with your dates that made me incredibly happy. Thank you for including me and for allowing me to be your third wheel. 

More recently, I will always remember our epic sister adventures with you, Tammy, and Mimi at Burke Williams, Huntington Gardens, Westlake Village Shopping, Hollywood Men, Thunder Down Under, birthday celebrations, concerts, etc. We always had a blast being together. Your vivacious, fun personality was contagious and your open laughter uplifted everyone around you. You loved to travel and seek new adventures. 

Now, I am happy you are liberated from all suffering and earthly trappings. You have the freedom to travel, explore, and experience everything you want, Minh. For your resilience, strength and sacrifices, you deserve respect and only the best. 

While the vision I have of us growing old together will not occur in this physical space, I know we will see each other again and experience more playful adventures together. You can drive. I will DJ. And Tammy and Mimi can make their requests in the backseat. 

P.S. You did an amazing job giving Jasmine and Justin wings. Now, they have the ability to fly, make their own decisions, work hard, become independent, and build a bright future. Don’t worry about them. They are well educated and will become great doctors. They have your strength, resilience, charisma on command, and the entire family’s backing.  

Relax and rest in peace, Minh.

I love you with every fiber of my being, sis. Love you. Nite. Nite. 

Thuy, Your youngest and now tallest sister, 8-))

Minh, Tammy, Thuy

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