Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Realizations About Grieving

I had the realization that this was the first significant death I have had to deal with.

Then I realized that if I had dealt with another death before, it wouldn’t have made this one any easier. It probably would have made it worse, like when I was about to give birth for the second time. Instead of feeling like I already handled it once and knew what I was doing, I was unhappy at the thought of how much work and pain I’d have to go through a second time. Also I tried to ask my husband to provide a little more support when I was transitioning to the pushing phase of labor but that completely backfired as he began offering comforting words and all I could think was, “HE’S ONLY SAYING THAT BECAUSE I TOLD HIM TO. GET-THIS-BABY-OUT-OF-ME-NOW.”

I found I was feeling guilty for being so sad about the death of a person who had lived for a full ninety-seven years.

Luckily I had friends say wise things to me, like, “ knowing she lived a long life and was ready to die does not mean you do not miss her and ache to see her again” and “You’ve never known life without her. That’s going to take some getting used to.” So I let go of that guilt. But now I have an even deeper empathy for people who have lost loved ones too early: a friend, a spouse, or the worst, a child.

I realized leaving for vacation right from her burial had its advantages. Immediately immersing ourselves into quality time with our children provided gentle healing for our aching hearts. I knew the reentry to real life was going to be tough but I didn’t know I’d return home to five waiting sympathy cards. As soon as I walked in I was hit with the fact that vacation was over and my Grandmother was still dead.

I discovered that even though I liked having the cards I hated actually getting them.

One day I noticed I hardly cried at all. Which then, of course, made me cry.  Lose-lose.

I found I was haunted by smells for about a week. I’d catch a whiff of them in the most unlikely places, all day long. The first few days it was the smell of death that thankfully was replaced by the smell of church incense that then thankfully faded away.

I realized I could never call her again and hear her singsong, “Gina Rowina Pampina Bambina” and then pause so I could singsong back “Sam-pie-oh!” I thought about having a pretend phone call with her in my head and laughed at the thought of it because she would always call with just one thing to say or ask and then you could tell she was ready to get off the phone but felt like she should say something else to prolong it. It'd go something like this:

Her: I heard you had a nice vacation.

Me: Very nice. We had great weather and some friends with us. The kids got to use the kayaks in the ocean too.
Her:  (Now she’s about ready to get off the phone already but figures she should prolong it.) So everyone had a good time?

Me: We sure did!

Her: Good, good. (Now she really wants to get off the phone but feels like she should throw in one more thing.) Everyone healthy?

Me: Yes.

Her: Okay, bye!

I realized I would never get a call from her on snowy days anymore, demanding to know who ordered the snow. I know what I’ll be asking my children on snowy days for the rest of my life.

I came to understand intrinsically how joy and pain are intertwined when I found myself in a room surrounded by beautiful children clapping and dancing and music playing and it was just too much pretty, and I had to work at not breaking down in public.

After I wrote the above paragraphs, I took a break and had my first really full deep heaving sobs kind of cry, the kind of cry that children frequently have and adults rarely do. And I realized I wanted to start wailing the phrase I would have said as a sobbing child, “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”

But I couldn’t, because it was fair. It was the fairest death that could ever be. My Grandmother lived a long time: long enough to survive to see all of her grandchildren grow and know 26 great-grandchildren. She lived long enough to give the youngest his first pickle (a tradition). She knew us all by name up to the very end of her life. She even made me laugh on her deathbed. She did not linger for months in pain; she barely suffered. She passed at home, in peace, with family surrounding her.

And even though I already knew those things, listing them out in my head like that made me have the biggest realization of all: She won. She WON! And then an image popped into my mind, that of Gene Wilder’s face at the end of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” lighting up and telling the little boy, “Charlie, YOU WON!”

And I smiled to think of my Grandmother as a Charlie Bucket of the world. Like Charlie, she started life in poverty. Similarly, she also had some pretty amazing times in a sweets factory (one of her favorite jobs was at an ice cream factory). Like him, she lasted a really long time--but at the end had to hand in her everlasting gobstopper. And, like Charlie, this didn’t actually admit defeat. She played and she won.

As for me, I won too, of course, having had her as my Grandmother and for so long. I had a final realization that I’m entering a new phase of grieving. In this phase I don’t have to cry every day but allow myself the time and place to cry when I need it. And now when the pain of her loss is bringing me down and I find myself about to break down at the library music show or the supermarket checkout (and not in the mood for it), I’m going to think of Gene Wilder’s face saying, “YOU WON!” 

Rest in Peace, Babci Bucket.

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