It is what it is: an evitable part of life that overcomes us all. We see it in movies and cry as though we were personally affected by the tragic murder of an imaginary citizen of an even more imaginary world who spent their last breaths shielding a child from a speeding bullet. We cry quietly in the corner of the coffee shop finishing the last few pages of the young boy’s loss to his battle with cancer as though he were a brother or a cousin or a nephew. And when something can cause that much sadness only in the hypothetical, it has to be powerful.
In these stories of death, we know what to do, almost as if we were trained. A well-orchestrated film can almost cue its viewers to cry at the same time, as though forcing a tsunami of tears through the reluctant audience. Take for instance, The Notebook. Both the Nicholas Sparks novel and film of its likeness and namesake provide an endless array of tearful moments in love and loss of memory and each other, ending in the mutual death of the lovebirds, Noah and Allie (if you are one of the few people who hasn’t seen or read The Notebook, or are just one of those people who pretend you have so no one makes you watch it). It is a beautiful story with high highs and low lows and a very predictable death ending. Yet even though we know what’s coming, the tears still flow fully. But at the end of The Notebook, once the tears have slowed, we calm ourselves with the notion that they are happily together in whatever afterlife you believe, just as in love as they ever were.
But it’s not real.
We can invent whatever ending gives us closure or imagine it any way we please because in the end, it is just a story. We’ll never meet Noah or Allie, or know how they affected the world and the community around them, or share memories with them, or even know who they really were. So, instead, we make up our own perfect ending.
My grandfather was a big Nicholas Sparks fan. I’m fairly certain that he read every one of Mr. Sparks’ books he could get his hands on. On January 6, 2014, he passed away in a fashion very similar to a character from the books he loved so dearly. He and my grandma made a nice dinner together and spent some time playing games and putting together a puzzle in their basement. Like always, he went upstairs to make himself a snack and watch a bit of football. Happily watching the game with a mug of hot chocolate and an English muffin in front of him, he had a heart attack and fell from his chair to the floor.
I got a call from my dad. It was one of those calls that are terrifying to receive, but always seem to have a way of working themselves out. He said that something had happened to “Granddad” (as he was affectionately known) and they were taking him to the hospital. The movie watcher, occasional book reader, and story lover inside me knew that he would be ok, because that is how it always goes. In the end, they are always ok.
I heard nothing for another two hours. With each passing minute my inner storyteller began heaping on the piles of denial despite knowing the logical conclusion to the two hours that had passed without a word. A friend of mine was on the couch next to me. He watched my face fall and heard the hollow disbelief in my voice as I read to him a text that said simply: He passed away.
What is there to do when you get that text? I surely didn’t know. I wanted someone to tell me. But, even when my sweet friend asked me whether I wanted him to stay or leave, I didn’t know, because I just didn’t know. I had a hard time believing it was all real, let alone having to provide an answer to a question as to how I would best deal with it.
In the process of grieving, we seek answers. Like with many mystifying life processes, society has attempted to create a set of rules for something that is simply indefinable. Both death and grief lie on the end of the spectrum of phenomena in life that challenge the human race on the deepest of levels. The process of grieving, very much like its inseparable sister, death, is unique for every person and every time. There are no rules to be followed or past experiences to mimic because the emotional process of grieving is something not to be controlled.
I spent the next three days in a sort of weird fog of denial, random crying, and overly happy compensations. I spent too much time alone, I think. But I was also out of touch with the people I did get to visit with. But, that imaginary world created to surround the mystery of death in happiness is not real in this case, like it can be after watching a sad movie. I know what happened to my granddad, and there is nothing I can do to change it. That is what hurts. I then learned about this new part of grieving that I didn’t understand: telling someone about his death.
It’s weird to say. Do you just say it right at the start? Do you wait till they ask you why you seem so depressed? What if they never ask? Do you tell everyone you know or do you just tell someone when he or she asks? Do you post a memorial on Facebook and wait for the prayers and “I’m sorry”s to flow in?
The thing is, there isn’t one answer to those questions. You just sort of have to let things happen as they may. There is no right way or proper technique. It comes out when it comes out because there is a point when you both can and should not keep it to yourself. As a person who finds great comfort in following the correct procedures, it just made the experience harder and more uncomfortable.
As a normally very happy person, I feel as though I did not hide it well at all. I told my friends, not all of them, but just a few. Not even people I would have guessed to tell, but it helped for while. I heard a lot of “I’m sorry” and “He lived a great life” and “Celebrate his incredible life.” Though it worked for a bit, it quickly faded in bringing consolation.
Then came the viewing and the funeral (a.k.a. the first step towards realization). Kept at bay by the freezing rain pelting the Philly suburbs on that Friday afternoon, I had missed the family portion of the viewing and arrived for the just in time for the public version of the same. In a family with 5 siblings and over 20 grandchildren, it seems as though I might have a large support system. However, I arrived after the whole bonding portion of this unexpected weekend. As large group of busy people, we don’t get to see each other all together very often, and I had most certainly missed the reconnection part, especially in a time when it is so hard to reconnect.
Seeing anyone’s dead body for the first time is a shocking and incredibly sad, uncomfortable experience. I can still see it now: my grandpa in his new Bloomsburg University jacket lying more quiet, still, rigid and hollow than I care to remember him. I felt alone in that moment, equally surrounded amidst the viewing goers and family and entirely alone.
In grieving, the people around you are so important. I went through both the viewing and the funeral with my family. We cried together and we chatted about all the things that made my grandfather the great man that he truly was. His old friends shared kind words and humorous stories. Even the sky wept as we laid roses on his casket and sent him into the ground.
But I struggled with not really knowing anyone around me except for me family. Even then, they too had their own ways of dealing with things that didn’t necessarily coincide with mine. So I kept my phone near me in the hopes of contacting my friends in times of need, because that is what I knew would really help me.
The sharing of memories is the once sense of connectedness we feel in the distress of mourning a loved one. We thrive in the good ones, the honest work and generosity remembered by those touched by the person who has passed. A lovely woman from my grandparents church spoke of how my grandparents came to her house and adorned her new lawn with an array of flowers because that was their way of saying hello and welcome to our community. You also revel in the humor of the funny moments they created intentionally or unintentionally. My cousin and I shared a laugh over the fact that since her graduation from college, my grandfather’s parting message to her was always a short and simple, “Get a job!” My aunt told me the story of how my grandfather could never understand how she and my uncle met in a bar, and he insisted on referring to it as a beer garden, as though it made it more sophisticated. There are memories of determination and pride and just the person being truly themselves.
I relived old stories I never heard through the eyes of my grandfather’s college buddies who knew him in a way I never would. Most importantly, I learned how little I even knew about my grandfather. He was always the quiet one at family gatherings, happily doing whatever needed to get done to make the event a success or sharing the occasional funny joke he had read on the Internet. But I never knew about many of the amazing things he accomplished in his life because I never took the time to ask. Even without this knowledge, I learned that pieces of me are a true reflection of my grandfather and gained a true respect for his quiet, humble, and incredibly generous soul.
But we have to move on eventually. It’s a moment big or small that sets us in the opposite direction. There is a feeling: an alteration in the direction of thoughts, a new frame of mind, and a peace that can’t be described until it is felt. It is another part of a process that is vague and indefinite and so difficult to strive for when it’s existence and proximity of occurrence are unknown. For me, it was a few days after his funeral in a chat with another friend who I don’t talk to as often as I should. He simply asked me what I was looking forward to in the next few months (which also happen to be my last semester of college). Once again, it made me think of my grandfather but in a new way.
I recalled a story that one of my grandfather’s college friends told at his funeral where he rode in benches they tied down to the back of a truck they had hired the local pizza delivery guy to drive in a blizzard from the middle of Pennsylvania to see a game in Philadelphia. He was probably about my age at the time. I couldn’t help but realize that in all my silly worries about thesis and graduating and getting a job, I had lost that sense of adventure that I learned my grandfather exemplified so well. My friend and I chatted about how we both sought to make this last semester filled with that sort of adventure, and it felt like I would be honoring my grandfather by doing so.
It’s been almost a month now and the effects still linger. It’s ok if I have a slight aversion to hot chocolate and I tend to tear up when I think about ping-pong. And it’s fine that any conversation I have had lately that lasts for more than an hour usually includes my grandfather. That’s what works for me. Sometimes, I need to talk about it. Sometimes, I need to write about it. Sometimes, I will just cry for no reason. But, I have had much happier days since and it will only to continue to improve. I cried writing this because how could I not. But, now I feel infinitely better.
Next time a loved one experiences a loss, be there for them. If you want, you can say “I’m sorry” or “I’m here if you want to talk.” But this time, just do something nice for them. Bring them a happy movie (not The Notebook) or cook them a dinner or just give them a hug or remind them of the brightness of their own future. Just go out of your way and really take time. Remember their sadness will be a process with undefined stages that will take time and you can be there for them whenever they decided what they need and even when they just don’t know. There will never be a perfect answer but there is always the willingness to try.
Miss you Granddad.