Everyone grieves—and copes with grief—differently. Just because someone grieves in a way other than you have, or think you would in a similar circumstance, or in a way you cannot understand or find to be logical, doesn’t make it wrong or weird. Grief also doesn’t have to be only about death; people experience grief with many different life events.
This is my most personal experience with grief after my grandma died. It changed my perspective on how I want to spend the rest of my time living and the empathy I have for others. The first year was hardest, but the second year was also much harder than I expected.
I spent a lot of time (especially in the first few months) googling about grief and reading about others’ experiences coping with the death of a family member. I hope that if you’re here reading because that’s how you found me, that my experience can help you in some way, or at least make you feel “normal” in how you’re experiencing grief. You aren’t alone. And if you’re not facing grief yourself, I hope you’ll tuck this away in your mind to share with someone you know while they may be struggling with grief.
The last weeks of March and the first weeks of April are an emotionally difficult time for me. My grandma died on April 2, 2015. She was one of the most important people in my life and I was not ready to face a reality without her physically in it. My grandpa died in 1984 and I don’t think my grandma’s heart ever really healed from it. Over the years, I can recall many times she told me that she wished she was dead so she could be with him again. Sometimes she had a dry sense of humor about it, and other times, she’d say it in a very serious tone. Either way, it broke my heart a little every time she said it.
When my grandma suffered a bad fall in mid-March, it became apparent that her days with us were numbered. When the doctors said there wasn’t anything more they could do for her, and she would be sent home for hospice care, I flew back to Chicago immediately to be with her.
I followed the hospice nurse’s instructions to the letter, administering medication and keeping detailed records of every little thing. (Hospice nurses are the most incredibly special people on Earth to do the work they do every day, if you don’t already know that by personal experience.) I focused only on my mission of making sure she was comfortable and properly cared for. Death is a scary, anxiety-inducing thing, not just for the people left behind, but also for the person actually facing it—even when they think they’re ready for it.
Part of what helped me get through those days, knowing the inevitable was to come, was making peace with the decision that I was there for my Gram and nobody else. I told her over and over, while she was still lucid and even when she began to slip away and was no longer opening her eyes or talking, “I’m here until you don’t need me anymore.”
I was holding her hand when she took her last breath. The hospice nurses would tell me that even if she didn’t open her eyes or respond, she could still hear me, so I kept talking to her over those six days, holding her hand. When she died, I felt a kind of emptiness I’d never felt before, but also a sense of relief she wouldn’t suffer any longer.
I decided to go home before the wake and funeral because I was there while it mattered and she knew I was there. I completed my mission of providing affirmation, support and permission. But some of my family couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to stay. I needed to take care of myself in that moment.
I had been grieving for six days already while caring for her, literally watching her go through the process of actively dying. It was stressful, sad, and the waves of anxiety were starting to drown me. I couldn’t sleep. I just wanted to feel some sense of normalcy. I was surrounded by people, but no one could comfort me.
However, even after I went home, I struggled to return to normal life. In part, I struggled because I felt like everyone around me expected me to be fine after a couple weeks. I wasn’t fine. People ask how you’re doing as a courtesy, but some of them don’t want to hear the actual truth when you answer. They’re often not prepared to hear anything more than “I’m doing OK,” or “I’m hanging in there.” Anything more makes them feel uncomfortable. There were few friends I could answer honestly with who were able to hold space for me.
I printed out dozens of photos of her and rifled through photos taken together from my childhood as I started to figure out how to cope. This photo is one of the last photos we took together, about five months before she died. I kept a copy on my phone and looked at it often when I was feeling upset or missing her and didn’t want to talk to anyone.
Hearing (or reading) “I’m sorry for your loss” and “my condolences” from friends and acquaintances only made me feel angry because they felt like such empty platitudes—they weren’t comforting at all. I declined phone calls because I would fall apart every time I picked up and had to talk about it all over again. It was like repeatedly ripping a bandage off the same raw spot, over and over and over. I was so tired of crying, I couldn’t bear to continue rehashing the experience. Friends who knew me best texted to check on me, knowing I probably wouldn’t pick up the phone because I didn’t want to cry inconsolably, but that I needed to talk, even if it was just about normal stuff.
And although in the months after, it may have seemed to my friends through Facebook or other social media like my life was normal or just as it was before she died, there were many days I struggled with tears and waves of grief—and still do sometimes. I cried a lot in private, and even in public places, especially during those first six months. In restaurants. In the shower. While driving to and from the office. Sometimes at my desk at work. Or in the bathroom. In the ice cream aisle at the grocery store when I noticed her favorite flavor of sorbet. Unexpectedly out of the blue, inconsolably, while sitting on my living room couch, just watching TV. As I was trying to fall asleep at night. All. The. Damn. Time.
I’m grateful for the people who told me it was OK to cry (hard and often). Who didn’t judge me, or encourage me to get over it. Instead, they acknowledged my grief and profound sadness, hugged me or held my hand, and listened when I needed to talk.
I’ve learned that the kindest thing you can do for a grieving person is to stop judging the way they choose to grieve and refrain from telling them how they should grieve if they haven’t asked you. Just listen. Don’t offer advice. Grief doesn’t have a limit before someone can “get over it,” or a timeline that dictates when someone should feel “normal.” There is no reason to rush grief and bereavement isn’t a linear process.
I’ve also learned that it’s OK to grieve hard and not immediately cope, but there will come a day when you have to cope and start moving on with your life. For me, hitting that point meant I had to ask for help. Medication for depression and anxiety, coupled with meditation and exercise (specifically pilates and yoga) is what has helped most. I had a few friends who had experienced grief due to the death of a family member, and they were hugely helpful as a home base. But truthfully, I wish I had talked to my doctor months sooner because I let myself suffer more than I should have as my complicated grief slipped into depression.
After awhile, most people forget and stop asking how you’re doing because life goes on and they assume you’re fine because they can’t see an outward manifestation of your sadness. And though life does go on, the grief doesn’t go away; the sadness just changes shape over time. I think of her every single day, and can’t imagine a time, someday, when I won’t. Two years later, I still can’t delete her phone number from my phone. Erasing that feels like erasing a part of her from my life, and I’m not ready to do that. One day, maybe I’ll be able to. But not today, and that’s OK. It’s part of the process.0