Grieving Without a Guide
Earlier this year, my grandmother passed away. Her death was a shock to my entire family; it came out of nowhere, and it happened quickly.
My grandmother was not ready to die. She had just bought a new house, which she had decorated carefully and impeccably. She was tall, proud, statuesque, and she only wore heels. In fact, I remember her telling me that she could no longer wear flats even if she wanted to; she had worn heels for that long! She dressed like an off-duty fashion model, and treated the street as her personal runway. I would paint outlandish, colourful designs on her leather jackets and shoes, and she would wear them out and about in her neighbourhood. She would always get stopped on the street. Her style and stature made for a captivating combination.
She was extremely stubborn, witty, and sharp. You could put nothing past her, and she was impossible to dupe. Real estate agents, contractors… anyone who tried to take advantage of her was in for a surprise. She was relentless, fierce, and spoke her mind at all times.
She had written three novels and had diligently maintained a blog, documenting the lives of inspirational and widely unknown women who “challenge society’s perception of retirement and age” (http://www.thecallalilydialogues.com/). Her last blog post was roughly a month before she passed away, about the abstract Expressionist painter Corinne Michael West.
When she was sent to the hospital initially, she did not want to see anyone. This is a woman who never looked anything less than impeccable and was always in control of her appearance and her surroundings. In the hospital she was forced to relinquish this control, and it must have been shameful and terrifying. She had also not been to a doctor in forty years, a factor which no doubt contributed to the late diagnosis of her cancer, as well as other illnesses. She was scared of hospitals, but was even more scared of having her autonomy taken away from her.
Within a matter of days of being in the hospital, her condition had worsened so intensely that she was no longer conscious. When my sisters and I finally came to the hospital to visit it was a tremendous shock. Her hair, which was normally long, white, blow-dried, and straightened, had been tied up in a greasy, messy bun. Her false teeth were gone and her mouth hung open. Her eyes were closed and sunken. Her breathing was laboured, snarling, and uneven. Her body was bloated and swollen. She looked utterly fragile, and sickly in every way. This woman was the opposite of the Granny I had known my entire life, who had always been the image of vitality, strength, and self-possession. It was jarring, and I was shaken.
I remember that moment; sitting next to her, with my father and my uncle in the hospital. An unfamiliar feeling began to unfurl in me, something that I became more and more acquainted with in the aftermath of her death. It is a feeling that I can only describe as such: my mind felt absolutely blank, devoid of all thoughts. My body felt numb and distant, and I felt overcome with a deep, thudding sadness, a nascent anger, and a sense of confusion. I felt as though my brain had been replaced by a cinderblock, and my blood had become lead.
She passed away within a week. The funeral was hastily organized, and people came and paid their respects. We went through the motions and the days marched on. I had no choice but to keep moving; after all, I had recently graduated and needed to start looking for work. I had told myself, you need to put yourself on autopilot. People die, life goes on, it happens all the time. Just look for work during the week, and on the weekends, spend time with your family and allot yourself that time to come to terms with what happened.
Except, of course, that turned out to be impossible. Emotions do not wait for the appropriate time to take hold. I would be in my apartment with my boyfriend, pouring milk into a bowl of cereal in the morning, and out of nowhere I would burst into tears. I would be folding clothes and start to cry. I could not sleep. I was constantly simmering with anger, and would lash out over the most insignificant things. At the time it felt irrational, frustrating, and completely unexplainable. Generally speaking, I am not accustomed to showing excessive emotion, delving into my feelings, discussing or dissecting them. In the wake of my grandmother’s death, I could not understand what I was experiencing, nor relate it to anything I had witnessed or dealt with before. Worse yet, I felt alone in my family as well; my younger sisters seemed to be carrying on with their lives just fine. Was there something wrong with me? Was I being irrational and overly sensitive? In this time after her death, I was constantly asking myself these questions, and the answer was always a ghostly yes.
Months later I have fully internalized the fact that my grief was justified, but at the time, I did not understand what I was experiencing, nor did my reaction to my grandmother’s death seem reasonable or appropriate. Grief is a mysterious phenomenon, often not spoken about. I think this is because it is difficult to pin down: what does grieving actually entail? I remember hearing numerous times that everyone grieves differently. This phrase is meant to be comforting, but I found it maddening. I wanted a concrete label that I could attach my feelings to, a label that contained definable parameters and characteristics, and I was finding nothing. Without this label my emotions felt unjustified.
Although the act of grieving is difficult to unanimously define, grief is far from unknown. To illustrate, different cultures and religions treat the grieving process differently. In Judaism, we perform a practice called “sitting shiva.” For seven days, people visit the grieving family, bringing them food, condolences, words of comfort, and memories. For seven days, the family does nothing but mourn, and this way they can take the time to internalize and come to terms with the death of a loved one.
For whatever reason, my family decided not to sit shiva for my grandmother. I don’t know why they chose not to; possibly because we are becoming increasingly secular, or because they felt that moving forward was the best way to deal with death. In any case, I don’t think it was the right decision. It felt as though there was no proper acknowledgement of her death within my family. Looking back, this lack of acknowledgement had far-reaching negative impacts. Not only did it not allow us the time to come to terms with her passing, but it also conveyed the message that the correct way to proceed was to move on with our daily lives, as opposed to stopping to sit with our sadness and acknowledge it. Talking about her death, and our feelings surrounding it, was not an acceptable option.
Eventually, I found work and began going through the motions of that. The mixture of anger, sadness, numbness and confusion that had come to permeate my life since her death still remained, simmering below the surface of all my words and actions. It was distracting and frustrating, but I felt as though I had to move forward. This was what everyone else was doing; it felt improper to do otherwise.
I ended up landing a contract that allowed me to work two days a week in the area of my father’s office. Though initially I was put off by the commute, this contract ended up being a blessing in disguise. Two days a week I would have lunch alone with my father. In this space we finally began to talk about Granny’s death. We could express our sadness and our pervading anger. He was extremely upset, and similarly to myself, did not have many outlets to discuss his emotions. It was in his office that I, for the first time, acknowledged my sadness without feeling guilty or irrational. I realized that I wasn’t alone. Someone else was suffering similarly to me.
The struggle of coming to terms with my grieving has two defining characteristics. Firstly, I could not understand what I was experiencing because most people around me were not being candid about their emotions. There was no window of time to sit and be honest with our sadness, and for that reason I interpreted my emotions to be unacceptable. Secondly, because I could not categorize my emotions under a definable and known label, I had deemed them as irrational. If everyone grieves differently, then how do we know what actual grieving is? Am I actually grieving, or I am just being dramatic?
Eventually I came to realize that this question in itself was toxic. Emotions and experience do not need a label to be valid. Emotion is always valid, and allowing ourselves time to acknowledge our feelings and experience them is not a sign of weakness, being dramatic, or irrationality. It is a necessary step in understanding and overcoming our struggle. Moreover, emotion does not need to be dissected and intellectualized to be dealt with; it is okay to feel sad and not know why. If anything, attaching guilt to sadness will just compound it.
Months later, there are still times when I experience an intense rush of anger at the unfairness of such an unexpected death, or a sense of sadness at the thought that I will never get to be with my grandmother again. However, now my emotions do not frustrate or confuse me. They do not make me feel as though I am somehow a weaker or more irrational person. In fact, now I recognize that acknowledging and sitting with difficult feelings is a sign of strength. And what a tremendous comfort it is, to truly understand that with such emotional turbulence comes the potential for growth and stability.