Late in 2016 I lost my grandmother. I call it “The Long Goodbye” because she had strokes and was unable to walk and after my mom tried to care for her at home for eight months, we decided to put her into an assisted care living home. She lived there for six long years.
My grandmother was a second mother to me. It was not that my own mother was lacking in any kind of parental attention or love, but our family was and is, small and close. She was my mother’s mother and she and her husband, my grandfather, were a second set of parents to me in the best possible way. They lived about five minutes away and my parents and grandparents interacted with each other on almost a daily basis.
Losing a parent in your life is a milestone. No matter how old they are or how much there is an understanding that it’s “their time to die”, it still is very difficult and painful to let them go. In my situation it was complicated by living on the other side of the world. While my grandmother had dementia, it was the kind that is typical of people her age. She always knew us and me in particular. Visiting regularly only one or two months a year never changed this. Her eyes always lit up when I walked in the room. The difficulty in this was the misunderstanding around our family. People thought she had alzheimer’s and could not communicate or did not know us. There was the assumption that due to her age, seeing her every 2 or 3 days was spending too much time or focus on her. I did not talk about details of her very much. It was awkward for me and I found the topic painful. I said goodbye to her six times and never knew if I would see her again. It was a merry go round of emotions. We just didn’t know what would happen. She was very frail and if she got pneumonia or had a stroke, she might have died quickly, but at the same time, there’s no way of knowing what was happening. She kept on living for years and years and those were long years. There was more discomfort as many people assumed the perspective that she was nearly or already dead and that I should just accept it and focus on other things in life. I was never going to accept her death as long as she could hold my hand and look me in the eyes. We were always able to have conversations together that were normal. Not for more than about five minutes at the end, but the connection never disappeared. I am so thankful for that.
My grandmother passed when I was in Ukraine. My mother and I knew this was likely to happen and talked about what that might look like beforehand. We knew she was failing the last few months but again, this was hard to gauge. At that point, we were not able to justify an expensive ticket home when we just didn’t know what was happening. Everything was so hard to figure out. Since it was October, I decided to wait and return home early to spend Christmas with my mother and father. I had not been home to celebrate Christmas with my family for eighteen years. I arrived home and then was reunited with my grandmother, this visit not in her care home, but in her grave, buried snugly next to my grandfather.
The death of a loved one is not something to gloss over whether that person is young or at the end of a full life. Yes, there is definitely some comfort when that person has lived out their life span in contrast to when someone dies at a young age. But when that person spent hours upon hours caring and loving you, teaching you and encouraging you into the adult you are now, it seems sad to brush it aside carelessly as if it was not a big deal.
Grief is a lonely road. Only you know the hole your loved one has left in your heart. It is hard when people brush off the condolences quickly and change the subject because it is awkward for them. You have to remember that they did not know them, didn’t talk to them, didn’t touch them or smell them. You are on your own in this.
After a loved one dies, life becomes 100% different in every way. You have to adjust to not only their physical departure, but you have to mentally rearrange everything in your life as well. This is what the period of grief is for and when we ignore grief, we are ignoring the opportunity to grow and adapt to that loss in a new way, that could very well take us into new growth. God’s plan is not for us to linger in death forever, but as that person’s loss leaves us empty, we need to allow God to grow something new and wonderful in our life. We have memories. We have their love. They will be important to us forever.
I saw a video on Facebook where a grief counselor drew a blob of grief on a piece of paper and around that blob drew a circle. She explained how the blob of grief will never leave us but that we will grow around it and discover new life in our lives. We may always experience times of feeling grief over our loss. It doesn’t dry up or heal or go away. To do that, we would lose all our memories of our loved one. We don’t heal up and jump into life like we did before the loss. We change, we grow, we carry the grief and we have an experience that will help us understand and comfort others who go through loss. We are forever changed. That is a profound experience that does not need to be scary but is part of the experience of life.
I am still trying to get used to this thing called, “the cemetery.” While I have visited many on historic trips around the US or in other countries, and enjoy reading headstones and wondering about the people buried beneath the ground, I am now confronted with visiting my loved ones there. I like to walk around and read the plaques of their new neighbors. Near my grandparent’s grave site is a small plaque that reads, “You were so wanted.” Next to those words is just one date and year. Obviously this baby died the day it was born. I find those words so full of grief and yet express everything.
There is the saying that “time heals all wounds.” I find this not to be true. wounds do heal up, but scars remain. But instead of resenting them, I am learning to be thankful for the loving memories I have and to be open to the new things and people that God brings into my life. No one will ever be as special as my grandma, but that’s what made her so precious. She can never be replaced.