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I began to grieve in earnest on a Thursday morning. It was windy, cold; I was sitting in a chair next to my grandmother’s bed in a convalescent hospital. She had fallen, tripped over her cat and fractured her hip, and was now recovering—doing well according to those who claimed to know—in a dimly lit room that smelled of everything you shouldn’t talk about at the dinner table.
She was wearing a faded hospital gown, the flaccid skin of her right calf sneaking unnoticed out from under an unexpectedly magenta blanket. Gram told me that every night now she prayed for God to take her away. To let it end. I nodded. I said things, endearing, compassionate, empathetic, supportive things. I didn’t blame her.
I didn’t. I was happy she wasn’t frightened of dying (recovery, she said, was much more frightening).
“You mustn’t be sad,” she said, giving my hand a little bounce, “You mustn’t be sad.”
I told her that was something she couldn’t ask of me.
I would accept whatever happened—help her through whatever happened.
I would be happy when she was at peace, glad she wasn’t in pain, but I planned to miss her. To be sad she was no longer accessible, to be, for an unknown period of time, selfish and sad.
From this I would not be dissuaded.
A few minutes later I went to my car and began the extended process of mourning.
My grandmother, Alida, was a woman who still said “mustn’t,” loved opera, and viewed women with suspicion. Her mother was a Swedish immigrant who came to America alone at the age of twelve to work as an indentured servant and ended up marrying a close friend of her employer thirty years her senior.
My grandmother was her third of five children--two boys and three girls--and inherited her mother’s independent spirit and strength, though they were qualities that would not always serve her well during an era when women were still viewed informally as possessions, pretty and pliable hostesses and waitresses, those wives.
She was pretty. Beautiful, in fact. But I hate to think how she struggled with those other adjectives.
There was a first marriage, to a man who used to bring home men and then expect her to disappear.
A second marriage to my grandfather, a police officer, and later Detective. He was in his seventies when he died, but despite the emotional distance that had developed between them over the years, the anger and bitterness we had all seen displayed, my grandmother fell apart.
She asked me to sing Amazing Grace at his funeral, because it had been his favorite song.
She asked me with about two hours notice. I only knew the first verse, and I hadn’t sung in public since the twelfth grade. So, while my mother sat in the front row and sobbed over whether or not she had remembered his favorite flowers (her own way to begin mourning) I got up in front of hundreds of people and sang Amazing Grace accompanied only by an out of tune piano, because when your grandmother asks, that’s what you do.
Her life, I think, had already broken into pieces, but this, I think, is when pieces of her life began to break away.
Earliest years with Grandma were a bit of a mixed bag. She was a loving, if not stereotypical grandmother. Until I was 8, we lived just a few minutes away, and my sister and I spent lots of time at my grandparents’ house, climbing the big avocado tree, playing house on the back stairs, and taking trips to the world famous San Diego Zoo, just blocks away.
Grandma played gin and watched Public Television.
She listened to opera and Johnny Mathis.
She gave us knit suits and pointy-toed pumps and dressing gowns to play dress-up in and wads of baubles and beads to drape and drip and dangle from every available appendage.
She took us shopping and bought us tuna sandwiches in department store restaurants, gave us coffee for breakfast—well, half and half turned beige by a little coffee—and cut iceberg lettuce into the most elegant wedges at dinner, served with buttermilk dressing mixed up from scratch.
She never made macaroni and cheese from the box, but served only the much-coveted frozen kind that came in the tinfoil pan.
She drank martinis, and fished the olives from the glass with two fingernails. She was slightly intimidating, but impressive then.
Not just a person to spend time with, but a person to have experiences with. For better or worse, that never changed.
I was alone with her when she died.
This time we were in the hospital, and I had been quietly reading for hours.
I wanted to be sure she had stopped breathing, even though the machines confirmed it.
I kissed her on the forehead.
I wished her peace.
I did not want to risk an opportunity for resuscitation.
I notified the nurses.
I called my mom.
This had been my first experience with the process of dying, and, in some ways, it was easier than I would have imagined.
I am, and always have been, overwhelmed by the idea of my own mortality, but I have always felt strongly about being present during the passing of others, if necessary. I became, at some point, the one to turn to when pets were likely to be put to sleep.
As a result, I was present for the final breaths of my childhood dog, my first husband’s longtime favorite dog, my son’s first cat, and a couple of pets of my own.
It may seem indelicate to relate the euthanizing of animals to the passing away of my grandmother, but it all stems from a desire not to allow anyone to be alone at the end.
I did not want my grandma to spend her last hours—however long that might be—isolated in a sterile hospital environment, devoid of emotional support and loving contact.
I knew, however, that my mom and my sister were not eager to deal with the process, so it was important that I should be available and prepared.
My grandma was 96 when she died.
She was long finished with life, a bit jaded, a bit disappointed, but appreciative of the experience.
I spent almost every part of it with her while I was alive, at least to some degree, right up until the end.
Grieving was mild, more a remembrance of times past than a longing. Grieving had begun in the nursing home as I watched her suffer, a shadow of the person I had verbally jousted with for all those years.
Such was not the case for my friend who recently lost her father.
He was many miles away in another country, and although he, too, had lived a long and full life, well into his 90’s, his death was a devastating loss.
The loss of a father is frequently more traumatic than the loss of a grandparent and for my friend it has created a gaping wound that I can sense will not soon heal.
Exacerbating the sense of abandonment is the isolation she feels, thousands of miles from the rest of her family, left to grieve on her own.
In her culture, she has told me, people come to your home to visit, to keep you company. They don’t want you to be alone. Even though the grief is more pronounced, she says, at least they have each other to share the experience with, to share memories of good times as well as the sadness.
It got me thinking about grief, and the way we grieve—or don’t—in this culture.
When my father died, somewhat unexpectedly, in his sixties, his third wife made unilateral decisions about how his death would be memorialized.
Initially, I was offended.
But later I came to realize just how much being part of that process might have had to do with closure, and the process of grieving.
Over a year later when she released some of his things to us, it was as if the mourning began again.
Seven months later, my son and I decided to cross cultures and create an altar during the Dia de los Muertos celebration to finally honor my dad’s memory in our own way.
Rather than the sense of peace and closure I had hoped for, again, it seemed to renew the immediate sense of loss.
Grieving, I have come to understand, is a process, one that is often undervalued in our culture.
When I send clients to drug treatment programs, they are often amazed to discover that it is the grieving workshop that affects them most profoundly. They are grieving losses that they were not even aware they had.
Many of us have losses that we do not grieve, I think.
We are a chin-up, buck-up, boot-strap pulling society, regardless of whatever touchy-feely trends come and go.
We are just as uncomfortable—if not more—with the grief of others.
How many times my friend has had people ramble on about what’s going on in their lives, only to stop them—blunt as she is—and say, “Do you realize my father just died? And you’re telling me about your trip to Hawaii?”
“I didn’t know what to say.”
This is the most common response. Really though, I think we avoid getting too close to those issues, feelings, with people in our lives.
Our condolences, when we offer them, are quick and awkward, the sub context being, “Please get over this so I don’t have to experience any more of it either!”
But we do ourselves a disservice.Suppressing those feelings or discouraging them in others can lead to anxiety attacks, chronic fatigue and depression, things all-too-common in society.
And prescriptions. Imagine if people came together to support their friends and family in times of loss—job, death, relationship—and some situational depression and anxiety never turned chronic and needed medication!
The film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close addresses this issue in a unique way, as well.
War is all around us. Hunger is surrounds us. Baby Boomers grow older en masse.
Grief is a concept we should all be exploring.
Grief drives men into habits of serious reflection, sharpens the understanding, and softens the heart –John Adams