Loss and grief are among the most universal human experiences, yet we shy away from talking about the pain of living and losing. For me, sharing stories has always been a step toward freedom, and so is following my heart and speaking my truth. I believe that all of my life experiences – the joyful and the sorrowful – have crafted this “feel it all” perspective in me. Loss and grief will present themselves, to all of us. It’s a fact. It’s not something we ever look forward to, but knowing that loss and grief are inevitable has taught me to face their arrival head-on, however tentatively, and listen for the lessons they hold.
My father’s death when I was just eleven taught me the fragility of life. That loss, so devastating to my tender young heart, spurred an urgency in me to live and to never take anything for granted.
I was out of the country when my paternal grandmother Rosie died in 2014. I was forty-thankful at the time, for the maturity I had to better face this loss. She was my pillar of strength growing up. I even named my intuition – that inner voice that reminds me of what is right and wrong – after her. I had visited my grandma Rosie in the hospital several weeks prior to her passing. She hated hospitals and wanted me to take her back to 1886 Daily Drive, her hermitage after her mother, husband and son died within three years. I remember braiding her steely gray hair and playing cards at her bedside. Euchre was her favorite. Those last moments we spent together, coupled with all the beautiful memories we had created over the years, profoundly impacted my approach to life. Her death further revealed the importance of appreciating those who matter most – to tell people you love how much they mean to you. With my Grandma Rosie’s passing, another hole in my heart formed, right next to the one my dad’s passing had left – invisible scars, chronicles of loss, yet reminders just the same of what’s truly important. Life pressed on after Grandma Rosie’s death, with the added recognition of another significant remembrance to hold dear.
Now eight years hence, another loss: the death of my maternal grandmother, Carol Jean. Whether it was maturity, past experience, or DNA, this loss impacted my life perspective yet again, reminding me of the importance of retaining that same enthusiasm I have always had to dance wildly on the stage of life. At the end of the day, I want to be proud of the way I showed up – of the way I lived in this world and dedicated myself to the kind of life that allows happiness, sadness, and growth to flow through me like a hummingbird effortlessly flying from flower to flower. However sorrowful or unwelcome, loss and grief have contributed significantly to my life perspective. Acknowledging that along with the joys, excitements, and wonders that life holds, there will also be loss and grief; to not turn a blind eye; to not shy away. Loss and grief are every bit a part of life as life itself. It’s okay to feel sorrow, speak of the pain and fear and embrace the finality.
Let’s be straightforward, we die a little bit each day, and no one is getting out of here alive. So, why do so many find it morbid to talk about death? Why do we not talk about how heartbroken we are? Why do we have to appear like we have it all together? We act like the hurt is gone, but it never leaves us. It just finds another place to reside within you. Loss and grief are so intertwined with life itself that I sometimes find it perplexing that we can’t be more real with its inevitability, the sorrow we feel, and the light that it can often shine upon our existence. Loss and grief don’t always apply to death, either. Truthfully, I continually process my losses and grieve daily. They both suck. I have not mastered the means, though I believe I’ve received numerous blessings in being present in those difficult moments.
Entering Covenant Hospital, for the third time for a family member, triggered some lingering trauma from the passing of both my dad and my Grandma Rosie. I kept thinking these feelings were normal – another disturbing event, same space, just a different scenario – filled with the same shitty emotions one comes to expect with death and dying. I can do hard things. I reminded myself.
I am grateful for those last forty-eight hours with my grandmother Carol Jean, also known as CJ, to those closest to her. I was able to tell her just how special she had been to me. I replayed our endless moments and memories and even teased her about all the makeup she used to wear. She struggled to speak, having undergone extubation from a ventilator just days earlier. All she wanted was a sip of water. Three ice chips were her only option, as her swallowing ability was severely compromised. I told her to pretend she was having a steamy cup of Tim Horton’s coffee. She loved robust black coffee.
As I caressed her unkept and uncolored hair, she reminded me in a very raspy voice of just how not okay she was with the fact that her hair was not curled. We pretended I was coloring her hair and prepping for the party she was to attend. I asked who she would invite, and generously she said all her past loves, including Grandpa Jim. She said, “I don’t see why not.” They had been divorced since I was four years old. I asked my mother, Joni, to reach into her purse and pull out her rouge-colored lipstick. Speaking loud into my grandma’s ear, I affirmed this was not her color, yet daubed the waxy paint to her chapped, dry, thin lips. All I wanted to do was give her back a sense of self during the last twenty-four hours of her life. I did not get to do this for my Dad and Grandma Rosie. At the end of the day, I wanted to be proud that I never took a back seat to my pain. At the end of the day, I want to be proud of the way I can endure unresolved grief and loss.
My grandmother Carol Jean was complex, like the multiple modalities she fought until the very end. She lost both of her parents within two years, at the young age of twelve and then fourteen. I can only assume this young, heartbroken girl did not have a therapist to talk to. Her two older brothers, Pete and Skelly, were twenty-plus years older than her. She had a heartfelt demeanor more substantial than all the cards in a Hallmark store. Everyone who met her adored her and said she was a lovely, well-dressed lady.
There were so many little things about her that I will always remember fondly. My grandmother loved her jewelry – invariably decked out with multiple gold bangles, rings, and necklaces – but drew the line at dangling earrings! She would never leave the house without a full face of Mary Kay makeup. My dad, before he died, always teased her about wearing high-heeled shoes with blue jeans. I still smile, thinking about how she would eat off everyone’s plate. “Let me just try that,” she would say. She and I would often share a bowl of fried chicken livers from a German restaurant in the town she lived. And, I will never forget the coral lipstick stains she left on every coffee cup she touched. There were so many.
Her discomfort in recent years was evident. Her coughing was sporadic from lingering pneumonia, with a gurgle appearing every few breaths. I don’t think she realized how angry her body had become, coupled with congestive heart failure. The sepsis and lingering urinary tract infection were far more than antibiotics could resolve. She was fortunate to have had hip surgery after she fell six weeks prior but still struggled with seeing through her cataracts and hearing without the hearing aids she never wanted.
I felt a profound need to provide whatever support I could to help bridge my grandmother Carol Jean’s passage from here on earth to the pearly gates she was about to enter. I wanted her to feel special, not frightened and alone. “I fear this,” she quietly told me after the nurse left on Sunday night. Despite my seemingly strong façade, inside, I was grieving, sad and already mourning the loss of my thoughtful grandmother – a woman who should have bought stock options in Hallmark Cards, Inc., given the vast investments she made over the years. I will miss her slanted, lefthanded script on the beautiful cards she would personally choose and send for every holiday and birthday – along with her quirky little gifts.
On Monday morning, the nurses pulled her feeding tube and removed her oxygen and the remaining antibiotic lines and tubes, keeping her alive. Watching this talkative and pious woman wither into the abyss was not for the faint of heart. The morphine injections began every thirty minutes to ease her pain, making the transition to her passing comfortable. Dignity matters. Agency matters. Quality of life matters. I sat there thinking about how we need to do better in society by representing the pleasant as well as the unpleasant. The blurry boundaries of young and old and the paradox they represent are utterly beautiful to me. My grandmother’s untanned shapeless skin looked great. I told her she had fewer wrinkles at eighty-five than I do at forty-eight.
The attraction of remembering our loved ones in their vitality of beauty is effortless and soothing on the soul; however, I am fortunate to feel and have the direct experience of dismissing the deterioration of the body as ghastly. Our earthly experiences teach us about the ugly duckling and the metamorphosis into the striking swan. I wish we could stop only admiring youth and its vitality while dismissing the converse as “hard on the eyes.” The unpleasantness of anything is uncomfortable. At the end of the day, I want to be proud of the way I fought to flourish. At the end of the day, I want to be proud of how I taught myself a version of strength different from the one the world finds convenient. I want to be proud of how I reframed bravery and made it into something soft—recognizing that the laws of nature apply to all of us. We each will wane and whittle away to saggy skin and bones. I don’t want those around me to look at me like I am a grim reaper but rather a divine dying diva who lived a life riddled with hardship and many stretches of happiness.
Death reminds me of how interdependent I am with others around me and the importance of fostering relationships and the bonds each brings. I also realize these interactions are pillars of support during adversity if I allow those closest to me inside the walled columns I construct.
Life doesn’t always cooperate. Grief changes us. I do know this. I can honestly confess that the continued deaths of my loved ones, which were significant parts of my life, have led to substantial shifts in my personality. Despite my heartache, I want to choose tenderness. I want to be proud of the way I chose vulnerability. I want to reframe and refine the meaning of life again and again; and I want, with every passing joy and sorrow, to love deeper. Patience with people will always be a work in progress for me, yet my motivation to create meaningful conversations and experiences has increased tenfold. I continue to remind myself of what is relevant and worthy of my attention. Time is a thief. However, I am recharged and ready to take it on.
At the end of the day, I know tough times come daily. Everyone deals with death differently. Everyone’s journey to healing is unique. Everyone deals with life and living differently. I know life resumes, and with its continuance, I will continue to experience and grow from loss. I will learn to live with it – reminding myself that loss is a part of life; pain is a part of life. I have and can continue to live on with the loss of loved ones. Those we love never truly leave us, as there are certain things death cannot touch. And for that, I am forever grateful.
Cheers, Grandma CJ, you will be missed and were loved dearly!