How Getting to Know Death Finally Allowed Me to Grieve
Illustration 114005513 © M-sur | Dreamstime.com
It would be like sitting too long in a hard chair. Or trying to walk with a pebble in my shoe. A forgotten tag in a new blouse that scratched at my back. I thought that grief would be like that. A magpie funeral. Uncomfortable and painful — but temporary.
Death was still a stranger then.
It hung around the edges. Whisked away someone I knew in high school, but we hadn’t been friends. I don’t think I went to the memorial service.
I was 21 when my grandfather died. Cancer had reduced him, shriveled him up so he fit into a twin bed in the guest room off the kitchen. Sometimes I tried to forget he was wasting away behind the door. The loud hum of the air conditioner in the wall was a constant reminder. The linoleum floor stayed cool in the Miami heat, but the humid air left beads of sweat on his forehead. His square jaw was strong and whiskered, and he still had a full head of silver hair. I remember my mother sitting on the edge of the bed, stroking his face, memorizing it. She whispered that we were all going to be fine.
On the night he died, in that hour, on the very minute of his last breath, we were miles away, crowded around the table at my Aunt’s house lighting Shabbat candles. Shoulder to shoulder we were singing the Sh’ma as if he could hear it. The steamy aroma of chicken soup still hung in the air when the phone rang. My grandmother knew before anyone answered it.
I don’t remember the drive back to the house; it must have been very quiet. Or perhaps it wasn’t. There must have been crying, but it’s not my strongest memory. Back at the house, my mother spent a long time with the body, but I didn’t want to see it. That wasn’t Grandpa.
The next day, the bed was empty, and freshly crisp sheets were tucked tightly around the edges. Someone had placed a glass vase of flowers on the side table. For days afterwards there was food and laughter, even though the mirrors had been covered and we wore torn ribbons on our clothes. I listened to all the stories about him and wondered why I didn’t know him better. I cried when others did.
When I got back to Los Angeles, it was easier to pretend he was still there waiting for me to visit.
I visited my Grandma not long after the funeral; I stayed in that room again but the furniture had been changed around and the room was painted a bright white. I was happy to have her all to myself.
The next time I was better prepared and knew how to act when death gnawed a hole into my life, an unwelcome guest.
We were still craving sleep then, stealing hours when the baby napped or slept through the night. Another phone call. It’s never good when it rings before the sun rises. I watched my husband’s face melting. Again, I was grief adjacent but this time I understood my role.
I held his hand, rubbed his back, and said all the standard lines. We flew to New York; I watched him quietly crying next to me on the plane. At their house, I greeted friends at the door, spoke in whispers, soothed the baby. I took up less space so his sadness could fill it. I wondered if he regretted not having a chance to say goodbye before she died. Both of his parents had passed away quickly. He seemed the same when we came home.
On and on it went like that for years as parents of friends, a congregant’s wife, the young son of an acquaintance, a teenage daughter of a college pal and even my Rabbi died. Each time I observed their despair, stood outside myself, felt the immediacy of their pain. Cried at the funerals.
Ever the Girl Scout, I tried to prepare myself by pre-grieving. Sometimes, if it felt right, I’d ask questions to understand the overwhelming emotions.
Grief builds a house and waits.
Finally, it was my turn to move in. By then I was in my 50’s. Grandma was almost 103.
She was magic: an energetic red-headed spitfire who read cards, played the numbers off her dreams and believed in her luck. She remarried a wealthy man in her 90’s, wearing a short, white wedding gown and high heels that showed off her legs and still slim ankles. After working from the time she was 14, to becoming a 6-day-a-week grocer’s wife, she suddenly had the life of an heiress. She wrote books filled with memories, bound them in leather, and gave them as gifts. She traveled first-class across the world, installed marble floors in her sky-high apartment, hired staff to drive and care for her. We were all showered in her generosity. Some family members took advantage of that. I was just greedy for her attention.
Grandma’s motto had always been, “live every day as if it’s your last” so she didn’t seem to have time for regrets. I believed her in-the-moment ideology. She’d held her head high when her first and second husband died and seemed to persevere even when my Aunt, her middle daughter, got cancer and disappeared into the dust.
I watched her closely after the funeral attended by a giant auditorium of people. I listened as people repeated over and over again that a parent shouldn’t have to outlive their children.
Still, she kept a busy calendar, went to the gym weekly, and gambled on Sundays. But I also noticed she’d started wearing flea market jewelry and carrying inexpensive handbags because she was giving away her expensive things. She also stopped traveling. One brief hospital stay; then her breathing became difficult. No disease or abrupt ending. Just a slow winding down of a clock.
This was not going to be a pebble in my shoe. I knew that. So, I was prepared for the epithets. I’d said them myself. She’d lived a long life, a full life, a Cinderella story. I had time to visit her, to tell her how much she meant to me, what a wonderful grandmother she’d been, and how much she’d influenced my life. I’d never forget her, I’d say. Her memory would be a blessing. She was the biggest influence in my life. I’d named my youngest daughter after her to remind me always. Jean.
I didn’t look back after I hugged her the last time.
I did drink in her smell, the color of her hair, her auburn eyes. It was only a matter of time. Weeks or maybe days. She struggled to tell me she loved me. I held her smooth hands, admired her pink nails. Still so vain even when you can’t get out of bed, I teased her. In the lobby, I said so long to all the parking attendants. I wondered if they understood I’d only be back for a funeral the next time.
The phone rang in the afternoon. It was only seconds between the time I lifted the receiver and heard my mother’s voice. Life changes in an instant. When the police call, the plug is pulled, the heart stops beating. I kept very still as her voice cracked. I asked all the questions. She’d been alone; her aide had gone to the kitchen for a drink of water. Arrangements were already made; there had been plenty of time to plan.
I told my mother, who was now an orphan, how much I loved her. There was nothing else to say.
My mouth went dry. Grief came barreling at me, embraced me, and wrapped its long arms around me, welcoming me.
How could it be so sunny outside? Why were there cars still driving down the street? Should I wear a sign so people would know to comfort me? Should I post it on Facebook so my ‘friends’ could take 30 seconds to write a comment? Who should I call first? I stared at my Grandmother’s number on my phone and pushed delete. Then I sat at my desk and rocked in my chair; boulders of grief arranged themselves around my shoulders. My clothes felt thick and tight on my body. I forgot how to breathe.
I suddenly had a deeper understanding of wearing black, standing for the mourner’s kaddish, attending bereavement groups and death café’s, visiting cemeteries, reading obituaries, joining seances and seeking mediums, looking for butterflies, rainbows, and other spiritual visitors, and on and on and on.
I googled grief, grieving, surviving grief, traditions for the grieving, getting over grief, ways to ease the pain of grief. I realized what a terrible girlfriend and self-centered wife I’d been to my grieving friends and husband.
Tears rolled down my cheeks. I cried for my friends whose parents had died when they were too young, and for those who’d recently lost them, for my neighbors who’d lost spouses and children, for people who’d lost beloved pets, for those who’d died in wars, and for all the many people who had died alone with no one to cry for them.
In that one moment I was an entirely new person, raw and fresh, and yet so much older. I was the first grandchild, the fourth generation of first-born daughters. I opened my mouth, spread my wings and crowed for my loss, happy to have finally found a voice for all the ghosts.