I finally watched the last 3 episodes of This is Us. Amazing show, by the way. Fans of the show had long awaited this last season to see how it would end, but it wasn’t the final episode that had me bawling. It was Episode 17 that gutted me. I knew I was going to cry regardless; the writers had been preparing us for the big heartbreak since last season. But it tugged at my emotions in a way that I didn’t expect. I found myself choking up for maybe half the episode, because everything surrounding Rebecca’s last days looked the same way as it did for my grandmother, who recently passed away in April.
Whew. This is about to be… personal.
The interesting thing is… I felt like it would be really ‘on brand’ for me to make a blog post about my grandmother after she passed. When we knew it was close and we just didn’t know when, I literally thought to myself a couple of times, “Man, I already know I’m gonna write a crazy, ethereal, deep ass post about dying on my blog after it happens…” So the day came that I got the call. I flew home and stayed a week with family. Attended the services and flew back to Atlanta. A week passed, then a month, now another month after her transition, and I have yet to come up with that brilliant emotional narrative about my relationship with her. I was so sure the sadness and pain would have made the words flow. But now when she crosses my mind, there is no wave of sorrow. If my eyes water, it is only for a second. It is almost like my bereavement process has failed to launch.
Or, perhaps my mourning started well before she died. It could be that I had felt grief for my grandmother ever since I left home in December 2020, and now there’s nothing left of it.
Shortly after I got settled here in Georgia, my mom called to let me know that my grandma had fallen. Instant panic, right? We all know what this usually means for an elderly person’s health. And she was 95 at the time. But after some updates, it seemed like the fall wasn’t so bad. No broken hips or such. But before this happened there were little bouts of confusion that started to become more frequent. She could no longer stand up without her walker, for balance. Some months later she had a stroke, but recovered as best someone could for her age. She no longer walked throughout the house, only to the bathroom, until she couldn’t do that either. Later she got a touch of pneumonia, and was sent home only to have to go back shortly after for the same thing. She always sounded tired on the phone and didn’t want to talk as long. She was sent home with medicine that made her sick, and the doctors didn’t seem hopeful that a change would make a difference. It’s all kind of a blur now. Everything seems to mix together in time. All I know is there were multiple hospital trips. Other falls. With each update from home, I would worry more. And underlying that worry was guilt. While I was working from home at my mom’s, I was also helping assist and care for my grandmother. Hearing about her health challenges made me curse myself for leaving. And it was frustrating to see how it affected my mom, who was still working full time while being her caregiver at home. I thought, “You were so hell bent on moving out before the end of the year, but you could have just stayed and helped longer.” I didn’t think it was my fault that all of these things were happening to her, but I felt like if I stayed, I could have stalled it somehow. I remember once when I was younger, my grandma was recovering from something else that landed her in the hospital. I sat across the room from her, and she was wincing. I asked her what was hurting, and she sighed and said “Just in pain, Leslie. When you get old, everything happens.”
When she was sent home on hospice, I flew home right away. The hospice nurse was going over paperwork with my mom when I got to her house. Usually when I visit Memphis and I walk into my grandma’s room, her eyes widen and her mouth drops. “Leslie?!” When I laugh and confirm, she starts laughing. This time, I walked in and she squinted at me. Once I nodded, she only had enough strength to smile weakly. But she knew it was me, and she stretched her arms best she could to give me a hug, and proceeded to ask me about my trip. I sat and talked with her for a little while before leaving to go somewhere with my dad.
That was the last day I experienced her with the strength to carry a normal conversation. It took me a while to get over that, because I felt like I should have made it count.
I thought that I would have one of those spiritual encounters that people speak of when a loved one dies. I almost anticipated it. I was so sure I would have a dream about her, or feel some kind of referred pain or physical sensation of release before or during her passing. But I didn’t. I cried at the wake, the funeral, and the burial, as expected [that first walk to the casket was brutal]. And I returned home and… returned to my life. The first day back at my apartment was empty and slow moving, but getting back to my job quickly threw me right back into the old routine and… I haven’t really cried since. Whenever I think of her, the only memories that stick are the ones of me watching her struggle in her last days.
When people on hospice begin to transition, it is common for them to do a lot of moaning and crying out, repeatedly. However, it is not due to them being in any real pain. They moan and groan as a method of comfort, because by now, usually they know what is coming soon. Before the hospice nurse told us that, I was terrified at hearing my grandma make these sounds. I thought she was in pure agony and it made me emotional to watch her in this state. On one of my last days with her, I asked her. “Grandma, I asked what was hurting you and you said you weren’t in any pain. So why do you keep making that noise?” She caught her breath and took a long dramatic pause before replying:
“I’m not making that noise because I’m hurting, I’m doing it because I’m scared of what will happen.” In my whole 32 years of life, I can say that I’ve never known my grandma to fear anything. Or at least to not admit to it. When she said that, I knew the shift had started.
But I wonder… is it death that we fear or what comes after it? The only reason we wish to hold on to people we love is because we don’t want to face a life without them. How do you pick up the pieces to your life and put them back together when a huge part is missing? Well… you can’t. It’s impossible to live the same life after experiencing deep loss of another, because a piece of you goes with them. They say all the time to people who have lost a parent or child or sibling or spouse: You never really get over it, you just learn to live without them. I’m realizing in my own periods of growth and sadness that this is true to life in many ways, not just when you lose a loved one.
I think the truth is that my grandmother mentally and spiritually left this place at least a month before her physical transition. And when I would look at her lie in that hospital bed, I told myself that this was not the Eva I knew. And I would cry. Because I wasn’t quite sure where she had gone, or when it happened, but it frustrated me that I didn’t get to say goodbye before she left.
It also frustrates me that I’m seeing my mother and father get older too.
It frustrates me that I haven’t lived and built a life that allowed me to retire them early.
It frustrates me that continuing the creative endeavors I thought would lead me to that life suddenly seem uninteresting or unattainable.
It frustrates me that now I don’t really know what I want to pursue in life.
Ironically, my grandmother has always had immense pride and admiration for everything I’ve done in my life, while I remain obsessed with the need to do more in order for my life to count.
Maybe I have no room to grieve her death because I am too busy grieving my old life, and the current one that hasn’t really taken off in the way that I envisioned.
I think many of us spend a great deal of our lives reminiscing about the past, worrying about the outcome of current things gone awry, and anticipating better things and impeding doom to come in the future. And once it all ends, we wish we would have appreciated the present more. Death trumps everything, for a moment. It is always a big, jolting, painful turning point in life, and the grief that comes after is like something you wrestle with. I know there are 5 stages of grief, but I feel like there are so many moving parts to it. Grief is also loneliness. It is also laughter. It is defeat. It is shame. Guilt. Growing. Failing. Jealousy. Healing. Unlearning. Falling short. Finding light. It’s a fight that you win AND lose at. But at some point its up to you how it ends. You either wrangle your way out of the ring and into the next beautiful chapter of life, or get pinned down by this ever-present sorrow that follows you for years.
I’m trying so hard to end the fight with grief. I hope for a future that is abundant. I pray for my parents’ health and happiness. And I anticipate seeing my grandmother in my dreams.
Peace to you.