My paternal grandmother holding my infant child

My therapist asked me to do a homework assignment for him before my next appointment, which is tomorrow. So of course, I left it until today. The subject is loss, which is hard for me to talk about because I get choked up on my tears. So I write, and then we discuss. I’ve spent a great deal of emotion on this essay I’ve been writing, so I decided to share part of it with you. My memories of past events may not be entirely accurate, but this is how I remember things.


I was 11 years old when my paternal grandfather died. It was February school vacation time when my dad got a call saying his dad had had a stroke and it wasn’t looking good. The cost of flying him down to Florida alone was prohibitive, so my parents decided to pack the three kids in the car and drive down together. When we got to his hospital room, we thought we had the wrong room. The man in the bed looked nothing like the grandpa I knew. I burst into tears when we learned it really was him. He was so gaunt and sickly, and he had these terrible, loud hiccups that shook his entire body. If he hadn’t been in a coma, they would have been so painful. I refused to visit him again the entire week we were there because it upset me so much. When it was time to leave for home, I did say goodbye to him.

We stopped at a hotel that first night, and my dad had to go to the lobby to use the pay phone to check in with my grandma. I’ll never forget how he looked when he opened the door to the hotel room with his face all red and his eyes streaming with tears. Grandpa had held on until we said goodbye, and then he let go. We all cried and piled onto each other in a hug.

I was sad about it, but I didn’t grieve for an extended period of time. I’d never been particularly close with my grandpa – my dad’s side of the family has never been particularly emotionally available – and I felt awkward when I went back to school and ended up in grief counseling with a girl in my class who had lost her father to cancer. My loss was nothing like hers. I think I only went to 3 or 4 of those sessions before they decided I didn’t need to go.

There were other deaths in my family over the years, but none of people I’d met more than a few times when they came for short visits. Cancer took a handful of my aunts and uncles, great-aunts and great-uncles. None of those deaths touched me personally, though. I wasn’t even old enough to regret not getting a chance to know them most of the time.

Then, out of nowhere, my maternal grandfather died in 2006, a month before my kid’s first birthday. A phone call from my mom woke me up early on July 11. Grandpa had had a heart attack, and the ambulance was taking him to the hospital. She was going to Ellis, but I shouldn’t go; I could go down to the house (hers) if I wanted to. She would call when she got there and knew more. Turns out that he was already dead when help arrived, but the first responders knew my grandparents, and they tried to revive him through CPR the whole way to Ellis so he could be pronounced dead there and there wouldn’t have to be an autopsy.

I was working from home with an infant at the time. I called my mother-in-law and asked if she could take her grandkid so I could head down to my parents’ house. She was in shock when I told her what was going on, and she babbled something about having a hair appointment, so she’d have to call me back. I was frantic when I hung up, but she called back shortly after and said to bring him over. She apologized for not just saying that in the first place, that she wasn’t thinking.

I dropped my kid off with her and drove down to my parents’ house. My oldest brother and his wife were there already, as was my youngest brother. No one knew anything yet. My sister-in-law answered the call when it came.

I honestly don’t remember what happened when I heard the news. I do remember that I thought I was being stoic at the time, and I wasn’t crying. I called my husband to update him. He asked me if I need him, and I don’t remember what I said, but even if I said no, he still left work and came down to be with me. My oldest brother decided to go to the store and get stuff for either burgers or sandwiches – I don’t remember which – because he knew the house would be packed soon, and people would want lunch. His wife and I got the table set and tried to make sure everything would be ready for when everyone got there.

People piled in with lots of crying and hugging. I remember hugging my mom so tightly. My grandma… she was completely lost. The last words he said were, “Betty, I’m dying. I love you.”

When lunch was ready, I was out in the kitchen getting food, and my mom told me she didn’t expect I would be the one to take it the hardest. (Though I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house as a kid, I didn’t visit them nearly enough when I got older. My youngest brother visited them multiple times a week throughout high school; he was Grandpa’s “buddy.”) I didn’t know what she was talking about, because I wasn’t hysterical or anything, but I guess she could see on my face what I hadn’t realized yet.

The funeral was hard. We’d picked out some flowers on a little pillow – a flower for each great-grandkid at the time – but we weren’t allowed to put it in the coffin because the flowers would rot underground, and we’d intended for it to be buried with him. I cried a lot at the funeral home. But I’d learned so many stories about my grandparents I’d never heard before at the wake, like how Grandma had flushed another woman’s head in the toilet for flirting with Grandpa in front of her. The worst part was the end of the funeral when Grandma was the last one up at the coffin to say goodbye, and I’d never heard such heartbreaking wailing in my life. They had to pry her away so we could get to the cemetery.

Out of all of it, Grandma’s grief hit me harder than anything. They’d been married for over 50 years, and now she was alone. I can’t imagine how she does it. I don’t know if I could do it – something I just don’t want to think about.

I may not have cried much at first, but I cried a lot in the following weeks and months. My family got in the habit of going out to eat together practically every day. We were coming together for Grandma, who kept telling everyone she was ready to die, that she didn’t want to go on without him because it was too hard. I had lost all of my pregnancy weight before this, but I gained a lot of it back from dining out every day. It was expensive and unhealthy for my body, but I needed to be with my family. It was too hard being alone with my baby all day while my husband was at work.

I don’t know when we stopped going out every day, but it happened eventually.

I don’t generally get too upset about Grandpa’s death during the year unless I’m with my mom or grandma when they are having a hard time. If they start crying, I lose it, too. Except for July. Every year since then has been terrible. It’s like my body knows there’s a significant date coming up, and I’m flattened by depression despite anything else that might be going well in my life.

My paternal grandma died May 13, 2010. She’d had a series of mini strokes that February, and she’d been in and out of the hospital since then. In the end, she was begging to die, but she saw an angel sitting in the chair next to her hospital bed who told her it wasn’t time to go yet. And then it was.

I’d never been close to her – she was very “aloof” when she spent time in NY instead of Florida. But I was old enough now to understand the loss of never getting to know her, never getting to understand her.

And my husband’s grandma died the same week.

Thankfully, I was already in therapy at this time. My emotional train wreck could have been a lot less subtle than it turned out to be. But July came early that year, and my depression just got worse and worse as time crept on. I was hurting, and I was destructive.

My paternal grandmother holding my infant child

And the rest of this is between me and my therapist. The photo here was taken in 2006 when my paternal grandma made one of her last visits up to New York to see everyone here. I remember thinking that it was important to get a picture of her with my kid in case she didn’t make it up for another visit. Ironically, this photo was taken three days before my maternal grandpa died…and I never got a picture of him with our kid.

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