Malaysian overcomes grief by picking up ‘mushrooming’

Long Litt Woon is a Malaysian anthropologist and author currently residing in Norway.

PETALING JAYA: The American poetess, Emily Dickinson, once wrote, “Unable are the loved to die, for love is Immortality.”

Losing a loved one at some point in life is inevitable, and it can be devastating.

One fateful morning Long Litt Woon received a phone call from her husband’s colleague, telling her he had collapsed in the office and had been rushed to the hospital.

Shaken, she quickly gathered her husband’s belongings but before she could leave home for the hospital, she received another call. Her husband, whom she had fallen in love with at the age of 18, had died.

Born and raised in Taiping, Woon met her husband while spending a year in Norway as an exchange student and, in 1976, she moved there to be with him.

“I met my husband at a social function almost as soon as I arrived in Norway when I was 18 years old. He was funny, knowledgeable and kind.”

She was an anthropologist by trade, which she describes as “a social science with an emphasis on culture and social relations”.

However, the life she loved came to a screeching halt with the premature passing of her husband at 54 years old.

After losing her husband, Woon picked up mushrooming as a distraction from her pain.

“When my husband died, I thought, ‘I am never going to be happy again’,” said Woon.

She struggled with sleep and wasn’t eating well. It was a distressing time and her mother, worried for her welfare, came to stay with her.

Troubled and riddled with grief, she began wandering off into the Norwegian forest, which can be dark and foreboding, to take her mind off her sadness.

It brought her back to the time when she and her husband had been introduced to the hobby of mushrooming, and how they had considered taking it up together.

“I did not know then how it would help me heal,” Woon said.

During her walks through the woods, she would occasionally chance upon mushrooms that she could identify, and it was at these moments that she first felt the colour returning to her life. “I just thought, ‘Wow, this is what it feels like to be happy again’.

“When I got hooked the first time, this ray of light shone down on me and when I found a mushroom, I was just so happy … In a way, it changed me.”

With every mushroom she found, she felt a little burst of happiness, and this offered her the chance to escape the pit of grief she had fallen into. “The woods changed for me after getting to know the mushrooms, finding my way around.”

Woon’s bestselling book, The Way Through the Woods, tells her story of grief and mushrooming.

Change came gradually as she started to get acquainted with mushrooms and make friends with fellow mushroom hunters.

She began to feel the burden of grief she’d been carrying, getting lighter. It was also a relief that with mushrooming, it was not necessary to discuss her grief with others.

Her fascination with mushrooms has since taken her places and she has travelled the world, not to see the usual tourist traps but to spot mushrooms sprouting up in any and every conceivable place.

Woon’s journey through her grief and the forest is described vividly in her book entitled, The Way Through the Woods, which was published last year.

“And then, in this story of grief, I start with my husband dying on Page 1, and at the end I get out of the woods,” she said.

She had not previously seen herself as a book writer, though she had some experience writing while working in the private and public sectors. “I didn’t just suddenly become a writer … I’m so grateful for the response I have got with my first book.”

Her book has received an impressively warm response in over 15 countries, with glowing reviews from The New York Times and Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine calling it, “one of the 10 books you should read right now”.

To reflect the parallels between her foray into the world of mushrooming and getting past her grief, her book is written in two distinct parts, with different fonts and even ink colours.

Woon has travelled extensively in search of rare mushrooms.

One half of the book describes her experiences travelling the world in search of fungi, and the other describes in detail the emotional turmoil her beloved’s demise left her in.

Woon said, “In both stories, there is movement. In the mushroom story, I started off as a novice and then I took this exam and became a mushroom expert right at the end. When you start mushrooming, there are so many things to know!”

She recalls having to remember the names of hundreds of species of mushrooms, their qualities and their appearance. The need to remember everything was rather overwhelming, which was similar to the bereavement process she experienced.

“You just sort of drown. You have to keep paddling on,” she said.

While having friends can help one through grief, Woon said a substantial part of the journey can only be travelled by oneself.

“You have to carry this burden. People cannot carry it for you …They can be nice to you, but that cannot replace the journey that you have to do yourself.”

Woon’s advice for people dealing with grief is to take their time and to take care of themselves first.

She does have a word of advice for those struggling to cope after the death of a loved one: “Take care of yourself. Do not listen to what other people say you should do. Give yourself the luxury of grieving – which society denies you. Take the time you need.”

The Way Through the Woods is available for purchase at Kinokuniya and GerakBudaya.com.