This week I had the unpleasant task of mailing a sympathy card. It was destined for one of my dearest friends whose grandmother had recently passed away. I addressed the envelope and signed my husband and my names beneath the pre-written message. That was the easy part. Writing a personal note was harder. What words could I write that would give comfort? Were there any? If not, what could I write? In the end I settled for a simple note of friendship and tried to convey the two messages that I felt were the most important: I love you & I’m thinking of you. I mailed the card, but kept thinking about loss. That’s normally a subject I avoid contemplating at all costs. I know most people don’t dwell on grief or death, but my avoidance is, I think, a little more profound and includes even abstract or philosophical consideration. Without sounding like I crawled out of a Victorian novel, I can at times be prone to melancholy. It’s easy for me to sink into the dark and grey and wallow there, hence the avoidance. But last week, I didn’t wallow or sink, even as my mind kept spinning back, touching on two stories and their accompanying lessons about loss. I figured the lessons wanted to be written.
When I was in junior high, my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. There were blessings hidden in the diagnosis and many moments of joy and laughter and memories that I would never trade. But there were also moments of pain, sadness, and confusion---especially for a kid like me with strong emotions and no experience with loss. I remember one such moment, sitting on my yellow canopy bed and crying out my sadness and confusion. My mom was there of course, consoling me as mother’s do and generally talking me down. I don’t remember what I said, only her response. I imagine my line was something inane about being sad that my grandmother was sick and might die, but I really don’t know for sure. What I remember with extreme clarity was the next moment as my mother said: I don’t want granny to be sick or die either, she’s my mom. I understood the working of our family tree, and I knew that my grandmother was my mother’s mom, but until that moment, I hadn’t considered anyone else’s grief. In the way that your world view can shift in an instant, I remember that moment as the clouds parting and a light bulb shining as well as a ton of bricks falling. I suddenly had a new understanding and a different way of seeing things beyond my own emotions or grief. Almost 20 years later, that memory and the accompanying lesson as still so clear, as is the only response I could make in my stunned state: I never thought of it like that.
A decade later when my paternal grandfather passed away that earlier lesson was not forgotten. I was an adult by that time, a college student in love with my boyfriend, a man who would later become the Mr. to my Mrs. Perhaps that’s why so many of my thoughts and a great deal of my empathy was focused on my grandmother. Throughout the days of preparation and then the visitation and funeral she was stoic, focusing on the next task and what needed to be done. Her eyes were dry right up until the moment a soldier placed a folded American flag into her hands. Thinking of that moment still stings my eyes. I thought then, as I do now, the simple question: How? How can you possibly say goodbye to someone like that, someone you spent so much time with? My grandparents were married for 59 years. How is it possible? I know the platitudes ‘One day at a time’ and ‘You do what you have to do’, but I truly have no understanding of how. In the moments as my grandmother held that flag in her lap and watched his casket descend into the earth, I can’t imagine she knew either.
As I sent off my sympathy card, I thought of these two stories, and the small lessons they taught me about loss. No one really understands, there are no magic words, but there is empathy.