The FaceTime call seemed like an easy way to introduce my new cat to my grandmother, homebound in her Maryland nursing home during the pandemic.
She sat in a room designated for video calls, bright lights illuminating her face. I was miles away sitting at the breakfast table in my childhood home with my parents and boyfriend.
“Meet Lola,” I said to her, thrusting my 8-pound cat in front of the tiny cell phone camera.
She smiled knowingly.
“Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets,” she replied.
We all chuckled. She was still yiayia, a little sassy and never afraid to speak up, even as she adjusted her hearing aids or laughed in a way that revealed she didn’t quite understand everything that was going on.
I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d talk to my yiayia. I guess you never do.
I was shocked when I heard the news. No matter a loved one’s age, their death always deals a blow.
My second thought was the sad realization of how the coronavirus pandemic would interfere in my family’s grieving process. Normally, my grandmother would have had a large funeral with family and friends. We would have had a luncheon followed by each of us sharing stories from her full life. Coming together would have soothed the pain, even if just for a while.
She deserved more than a prayer service over Zoom, random family members cutting in and out as they forgot to put their audio on mute.
My yiayia was the archetypal Greek matriarch. Sundays were spent at her and my grandfather’s house. The whole family gathered for large brunches that devolved into loud clapping in front of the TV over football games and me and dad playing pinball.
I remember the food, the heaping platters of spanakopita and tiropita, the trays of sliced feta. Whenever we walked into the house, I’d ask if she had made any spinach or cheese pie that day. She would laugh because most kids don’t beg for spinach. (To those kids, I say: You haven’t had spanakopita.)
She was so vibrant. Leaving any gathering with her took forever — there were so many goodbyes and always another person to kiss on the cheek. On visits to Florida, she and my papou would stay up until the wee hours of the night, sitting at the coffee table and laughing, their voices carrying through the house, turning over old memories once more. I would sit in my bed, preparing for the next day of high school, wondering how me, the teenager, was more tired than my something grandparents.
She was also fiercely competitive. She and my papou once got into a heated argument over a game of Monopoly. When I repeated this story to my mom recently, she reminded me that it wasn’t even traditional Monopoly that had started the storied fight. It was the cat-themed spinoff, Cat-opoly.
She absolutely thrived on social interaction. No one had so many friends. She was a part of a bowling league for as long as she could manage and played bridge with her friends for years. My grandfather and her were attached at the hip until his death more than seven years ago. So I worried how all that time alone would impact her.
I also worried about the physical threat of the virus itself, knowing how fast it can spread in enclosed places. People had died from COVID at my yiayia’s nursing home. But when all the residents were tested, she came back negative. I knew the virus could strike again, but it felt like we were in the clear, at least for a while. It felt like we had more time.
My yiayia frequently told my dad that she worried she’d never see him again. When I learned that detail after her death, I let myself cry for the first time.
The image of her sitting alone in a room, confused, worrying whether she would ever see her children again — it seemed the worst kind of torture.
My yiayia didn’t die of coronavirus. She died of natural causes, of being 95, of living a full life, of closing her eyes one night and not opening them the next morning.
But I wonder how much the isolation weighed on her. I wonder how much she understood. I wonder how afraid she was, how alone she must have felt.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. As the pandemic stretches on, many of us will lose someone we love, from COVID or something else, and grapple with what it is to grieve in this new world.
I’m not sure I’ve fully confronted it yet. There’s a deep sense of unfairness I feel with losing a grandmother and not being able to honor her properly.
What I am trying to do now is take her memory with me throughout parts of my daily life and cherish her in my actions. I feel that’s all I can do, given the circumstances. After all, a funeral, luncheon and formal burial are just a way of expressing grief in public. And unfortunately, once they are done, the grief still remains.
The challenges peculiar to Covid became apparent the moment my parents, 69 and 67, with whom she used to live, decided to take her to the hospital on their own. They live in a third-floor apartment and the car was parked in the basement. The next-door neighbours were all down with Covid and they had asked me not to come — I have a child whose health they didn’t want to risk. With help from the domestic help, they managed to get her in a wheelchair and got her to the car in the elevator.
The hospital was 23 minutes away. She departed in 15, in the back seat. But they didn’t know until they got to the hospital. She had kept her arm on her eyes to keep the sun out, turning her head sideways — my parents thought she had drifted off to sleep. When they got to the hospital, staffers conducted an ECG while she was still in the car. She had flatlined.
Taking her in now, they told my parents, meant it would become a medico-legal case, the body would be sent to the morgue and they’d have to wait for an autopsy. My parents stood there, having just lost their kin, the body in the car, wondering what they should do next.
Fortunately, a doctor from our family who lived nearby got there to help them out, and took them to another hospital which prepared a death certificate. They told my parents to take her body to the cremation grounds right away because it could be a Covid case. We couldn't know for sure because grandmother passed away before we could get her tested. My parents wanted to conduct some form of last rites before the cremation, so they took her back home, but not to the apartment.
They decided to organise a small funeral in the basement of their block. Her body could not be kept out in the heat, so my father cranked up the AC in the car and lay her body there — that was how I saw her when I got there with my husband and father-in-law. Five chairs had been placed in a semi-circle on one side of the car. Five relatives came over after a while. Broken and grieving, nobody hugged.
No priest would agree to come perform the last rites and we realised we would have to do that on our own. We had to give grandmother the ceremonial bath before the cremation. So, my mother, two of her sisters and I tied a bedsheet from the car to a pillar in the basement to create a private space for bathing her, while she lay on a wooden trolley. We did all we could to give her as dignified a farewell as possible.
Security guards and a driver helped us carry her bier to the hearse van — there were so few of us,and most of us elderly. A short ride later, we reached the cremation ground, where five pyres were already burning.
We carried her body, again, with help. A member of the staff at the cremation ground recited shlokas — there was some feeling of closure. But there was barely anyone there and we had to pick up the wooden logs for the pyre. The logs were heavy but a stranger, who was there to cremate his own, helped us out. We were overcome with gratitude. After the cremation, we left.
Had it been any other time, we would have had relatives and extended family around us, to comfort us in our grief. They would have made sure we ate, stocked up on essentials, passed around cups of tea and shared stories about my grandmother. We would have organised a reading of the Gita. But we had none of that. The pandemic has made final goodbyes difficult, painful and embarrassing. It is one death. But we know the memories of this denied closure will linger. And, to me, what will rankle forever is remembering how I could not hug my mother on the day she needed it the most. This is an intangible yet heavy toll that no data can capture.
You will likely experience the death of at least one grandparent in your lifetime and, when you do, it may cause intense pain and heartache. Although your grief will ultimately be unique to you and to the relationship you had with your grandparent, in the following article we will discuss a few of challenges common to grieving the death of a grandparent.
1. This may be your first experience with death.
On average, there are about 47+ years between grandparent and grandchild. With such an age difference, many people experience the death of at least one of their grandparents in childhood or early adulthood and for many, this will be their first experience with loss. Experiencing the death of a loved one for the first time can be confusing and scary and can lead to questions about death, death related rituals, and grief. Although grief is always individual, age can influence a persons understanding and response to loss. If youre worried about a bereaved child or young adult check out the following posts:
If you are a young adult whos recently experienced a death of any kind, check out the post: How do I find support as a grieving something?
2. Your parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and cousins might be grieving as well.
The death of any family member can have an impact on the family as a whole. A grandparents death is often felt very deeply by many members of your family. Depending on the circumstances, you may feel as though you have to prioritize the needs of others in your family before attending to your own grief and wellbeing.
There is a proverb that says Grief divided is made lighter. Personally, I think the word divided is a little misleading because I dont think the proverb is meant to imply that anyones grief is any less. Rather I think it means that when we all grieve together when we share our sadnesses, our fears, and our joyful memories we are ultimately able to give and receive more support and comfort than if we were to grieve alone.
It would be ideal if all families could grieve together, however, we know that they often do not. Heightened emotion, grieving styles, misunderstandings, even fighting can make it hard for people to (1) support one another and (2) attend to their own needs. Also, your parents generation may set the tone for how they want your grandparents death acknowledged and grieved, which may be different from how you would like to cope. If any of this is true for you, you may have to work extra hard to balance your needs with the needs of others.
3. Your grandparent might have been more like a parent.
Families differ in their closeness, hierarchy, proximity, relationships, and overall dynamics. With such differences, grandparent/grandchild relationships obviously run the spectrum from you-are-like-a-parent-to-me type relationships to see-you-next-Christmas type relationships.
Many grandchildren have very close relationships with their grandparents and rely on them for a number of their social, emotional, or physical needs. When a close grandparent dies, the grandchild often feels like theyve lost someone akin to a parent which is intensely painful and can cause many difficult secondary losses.
4. You may wish you had known your grandparent better.
Conversely, just because someone didnt have a parent-like relationship with their grandparent, doesnt mean their loss isnt significant. Perhaps they love their grandparent dearly but never felt they had the opportunity to spend as much time with them as they would have liked. Some grandchildren lose their grandparent well before they are old enough to have a deep and mature relationship with them. When a grandparent dies, some people may be left with regret about unanswered questions and things left unsaid, as well as wishes about how they think the relationship could have or should have been.
5. Your grandparent might have been the glue that held the family together.
Often times, family members consider the eldest family member to be the patriarch or matriarch of the family. This person may seem like the familys foundation and when they die the entire family becomes fractured and untethered. There are breakdowns in communication, no one knows who should host Thanksgiving, and people start wondering if maybe they should skip the annual family reunion because it just wont be the same.
6. People may minimize your loss.
After the death of a loved one, people often long for others to recognize and acknowledge their pain. The person who has died is important and loved. So when someone minimizes your loss it feels like they are undermining the persons significance and taking away your right to feel pain.
People minimize losses for a handful of reasons. Some may assume your loss isnt significant based on their belief that it is the expected, natural order for grandparents to die first. Some may make judgments based on their subjective experience that grandparents are distant, non-nuclear relatives. While some may realize how much pain you are in, but offer the wrong words of comfort. For example, maybe youve heard this one
This is something people love to say about grandparents, I guess because its often true. Its not that helpful in grief, though, because being reminded of a persons age does nothing to ease the pain caused by their absence. There is never a point where you sit back and say I think weve spent enough time together. Yes, I have plenty of memories in my grandpa memory bank, so Im okay with losing you now.
Just remember, your grief is a reflection of your unique relationship with your grandparent and your individual ability to cope with this loss. You, and only you know how much pain you are in and how this loss ought to be grieved.
This list isnt even close to being all-inclusive, what do you have to add? Leave a comment and tell us about your experience grieving the death of a grandparent.
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Losing a grandmother brings questions about grief, and why we feel what we feel
This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.
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My grandmother, Mindy Smollen, lived a long, full life, and although her death itself was sudden, it was not entirely shocking. But having anyone you love pass away is hard. I thought about her often at night, or during the school day, and I often thought back on conversations we had had.
My grandma and I used to spend a lot of time talking about travel and art. She was really into art, so the topic came naturally for her — not so much for me. She also loved to travel, mostly to France. She loved everything about it: the language, the culture, and the food.
During the months following my grandmother’s death, I found myself wishing I had something of hers. My grandmother loved rabbits, and she sometimes gave little rabbit sculptures as gifts to family members. It seemed like everyone had one but me. Then, I found out that my sister had a handwritten letter from my grandma, only adding to my disappointment.
Why did I feel that way? And why was I searching my memories for bits and pieces of our conversations?
I decided to reach out to psychologist Charles Jacob to find out more about the grieving process.
“The task at hand is to remember and honor their memory in such a way that it does not cause us pain, but brings us some amount of comfort,” Jacob said. “Especially for folks who are grieving initially, there can be something bittersweet about the recollections of people who are lost.”
I also spoke with Jacob about my feelings of jealousy over not having a letter or anything tangible from my grandmother.
“I can see how that would cause some amount of vexation,” he said. “But I have to imagine there are a lot of different ways to remember and still feel connected to her.”
Grief is a complicated process, Jacob said, and he cited his experience with his father’s death a few years earlier.
“When we’re faced with loss, the world just keeps moving and changing around us,” he said. “The task at hand is finding a way back to some level of functioning, like, I now have to find a way to live without my father — not forget him — but also pay my taxes and brush my teeth, because those things don’t stop.”
Jacob talked about a psychologist, J. William Worden, who created a framework that says that in the wake of a loss, we try to complete four tasks. The first is to accept the reality of the loss. The second is to experience the pain of grief and process it. The third is to adjust to an environment without the person who has passed away, and the fourth is to find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life.
This framework made a lot of sense to me and how I experienced my grandmother’s death. I remember feeling sad about it for a while and just ruminating on that. Then, weeks later, her absence hit me anew, when we visited my grandpa for the first time after her death. Examining my thoughts and actions through Worden’s lens helped me understand that, in going through my memories, I was looking for an enduring connection. I was searching for what I was going to carry on from my grandmother.
Jacob also told me about some of the many ways people cope with loss. Often, he said, the most important one is just time.
“The reality is that most states of being are not sustainable long term. Eventually, we just start trending back to normal,” he said. “The trick is getting over the pain and then deriving meaning from all of it that doesn’t leave us feeling completely hopeless.”
Grandmother died today my
My Grandmother Passed Away from COVID
Dear Dr. Michelle:
My grandmother died two months ago from COVID. She was 78 years old and diabetic. Whenever people learn that she died from COVID, they ask me if she had other medical problems. The fact is, had she not caught COVID, she would still be alive today. I was very close to my grandmother and am having a very difficult time coming to terms with her death. I feel so much anger when people ask me if she had other health problems, I just want to scream at them. It feels like they are not taking her death seriously, like it was her fault that she died of COVID because she had diabetes. How can I respond to people so that they understand, because not only am I getting angry, I am finding myself becoming more and more isolated?
I am very sorry for your loss. Too many people are going through the pain and sorrow of the early loss of a loved one due to COVID. It’s not fair; your loss is very real and should not be minimized.
When it comes to responding to the death of loved ones, people do not often know the right thing to say and all of the misunderstandings about COVID compounds this problem. As a result, people can say things that are insensitive without understanding the effect their words have on the bereaved.
Here Are Some Ideas on How to Handle the Remarks of Others
- Limit the number of individuals you tell about your grandmother’s death to those who really care about you so that you can limit your exposure to others’ misunderstandings.
- If people ask you about your grandmother and you don’t want to tell them anything, simply tell them that you don’t want to talk about it. You should feel no obligation to answer people’s questions or to satisfy their curiosity.
- If you do tell people about your grandmother, limit the information you share. Nobody really has the right or need to know about the details of her medical issues. If you don’t want to lie, you could respond more broadly without details. Some examples of broad responses could include:
- “She had normal problems that affect the elderly population”
- “The doctors just confirmed that she died of COVID”
- “Prior to COVID, she was home, not hospitalized and did not have any life-threatening issues.”
- If the people asking you about your grandmother’s medical issues are friends or colleagues who care about you, you could be honest and direct with them about how you are experiencing their questions/statements. They may be more likely to have an honest exchange. Explain to them that even though your grandmother had diabetes, the fact is that it was COVID that interfered with her health and that ultimately caused her death. If it were not for COVID she would have lived longer than she did. Having this direct conversation might help your friends understand the perception of their insensitivity and it could also help them avoid offending others in the same way.
- If you have no investment in the relationship with the person asking, and you feel the need to be direct, simply ask the person why it matters if your grandmother had medical problems. Explain to them that her death is affecting you the same regardless, and if it were not for COVID you would have had more time with her. Sometimes people need a direct response in order to evaluate how they affect others.
Going through the Grieving Process
As you go through the grieving process, you might find it helpful to know that your feelings of anger and isolation are normal. You would likely experience anger even if other people were not minimizing the reasons for your grandmother’s death.
The most popular concepts about the stages of grief are those developed by a psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, who believed that grief takes on 5 commonly experienced stages, to include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Even if you are not in a “stage of grief,” feeling angry is to be expected.
Anger is usually a surface emotion, meaning that underneath anger lies a more difficult feeling to face, like sadness or fear. Your anger could be helping protect you from dealing with deep sadness. Anger is often easier to feel because it is generally directed towards others and can distract you from dealing with your own deep feelings of sorrow. The trick in managing anger is to actually deal with the underlying pain and sadness. Once you deal with those feelings, your anger can start to subside.
It is important for you to understand your anger because given what you are going through, you could have less tolerance for other people’s words and actions than you might have otherwise. Understanding your anger could help you increase your tolerance so that you don’t have to retreat or isolate in order to avoid the conversations related to your grandmother.
Click here to learn more about the five stages of grief.
Dr. Michelle K. Murray, CEO of Nexus Family Healing and licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, answers questions about family relations or mental health. Submit Your Question.
Dear Dr. Michelle blog posts are informational in nature. The posts are not meant to take the place of consulting your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health providers regarding your well-being or the well-being of others. Submitting a question does not establish a client/therapist relationship.
Submit Your Question on mental health and/or family relations to Dr. Michelle K. Murray.
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Was It Selfish To See My Grandmother Before She Died?
My grandmother spent most of the last year learning about the pandemic over and over again, expressing shock and disbelief — and then forgetting it existed.
“Why won’t you visit me?” she asked me every time we spoke on the phone.
“Because of the pandemic, I’m not allowed to fly anywhere,” I would respond.
“Whose rule is that? The federal government or the state?” she asked me without fail.
I told her it was for her own safety, that she, being in her late nineties and having a history of lung cancer, was particularly vulnerable. Especially as fires overtook Northern California, where she lived, shrouding her house’s panoramic view of San Francisco in a crimson haze and keeping her from her daily miles-long walks.
“Oh wow, it’s that bad is it?” she would say, sometimes forgetting the pandemic within the same conversation.
My grandmother had dementia for years, but it was inconsistent. She remembered how to take care of herself, who every member of her family was when they called, the important facts about our lives, and the best gossip. But she forgot the things less fun to remember: finances, current events, deadly global pandemics.
Instead, she spent her days wondering why she was so alone, why her family wasn’t visiting like they normally did, and why the caretaker helping her was wearing a mask and a transparent plastic visor.
“Is it a new sort of fashion statement?” she asked me once in the drawling transatlantic accent she adopted sometime in the s and never dropped.
The week before Thanksgiving, and a week after her 97th birthday, I finally got to see my grandmother in person. Her lungs had been filling with fluid for weeks and the cancer had returned. Her doctors finally told us that we were welcome to come see her.
Her lungs were going to kill her before the coronavirus potentially could.
With the holiday season now upon us, the US has begun to see another COVID spike that, in many states, is outdoing the reported numbers of infections and deaths we saw at the beginning of the spring. New lockdowns are sweeping the country in waves. Public health officials (and your friends on Instagram) pleaded with urgency that people not spend the holidays with anyone outside their household, a plea that was disregarded by millions of Americans who traveled for Thanksgiving and had dinner indoors. In November alone, more than million cases were detected and more than 25, people died from the virus.
This year, the families of more than , Americans who have died from COVID will be celebrating the holidays without them, feeling their loss even more acutely. Hundreds of thousands of others who have had to make the choice of whether or not to travel to say goodbye to dying loved ones will be feeling that loss as well.
When my mom told me my grandmother was dying and asked if I wanted to visit her, my immediate reaction was yes. I had been toying all summer with the prospect of flying from New York to Berkeley, California, to see her, flouting advice from doctors, knowing that I didn’t have much time left with her and that this year was wasting a lot of it.
But quickly, the knowledge of everything that was happening made me feel guilty. I have been very careful throughout this year, cognizant that my actions right now are not about me but about the strangers they could affect. I wouldn’t have time to quarantine or take a test before getting on the plane and seeing my parents. Traveling was unwise, I knew, and even selfish. I had to make the same choice people all over the country are making right now: stay in lockdown, or be with the comfort of your family?
My mom had to go no matter what. She was in charge of my grandmother’s medical decisions, and she had a whole house to pack up and sell after she died, my grandmother’s helpers to pay severance to, and other endless practical concerns. I should go as support, I told myself. What I realized was that if I didn’t see my grandmother before she died, I would always feel like I did something incredibly selfish, like I put my comfort over my grandmother’s in her final days. Even if I knew that wasn’t actually the case, I wouldn’t be able to overcome that nagging guilt.
My mother bought us all tickets from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco for the next morning. We pressed our KN95 masks into our faces, drank water through straws under our masks, kept a distance from anyone who looked like they weren’t taking the pandemic seriously enough, and headed to the Bay Area.
Almost every year of my life, I’d spent Christmas at my grandmother’s house, nestled in the steepest part of the Berkeley hills.
The house felt like something out of a fairy tale to me, a castle hidden at the top of a winding road, an inconspicuous cave full of treasure. It is made of dark brown wood and built vertically into the steep hillside, the floors stacking up on one another like massive steps. Despite being in a populated area, deer and other wildlife frequently wander onto the decks and up the small garden paths surrounding the house. One time, my grandma told me, a family of foxes made a home next to her kitchen. She didn’t mind, she said, they became her friends.
My grandparents were collectors, or less generously, pack rats. My grandfather’s career as an anthropologist meant he and my grandmother traveled a lot, and everywhere they went they picked up treasures. Every Christmas when we were younger, my grandparents would take my older brother and I on an expedition through the house, showing us a new secret. My grandfather, who died in , would push aside a desk chair to reveal a giant taxidermied crane in a glass box, or open a cabinet to reveal stacks of tiny drawers, each filled with small treasures; a sterling silver monocle, a carved wooden fish from Japan, old shiny medals that looked to me like pirates’ doubloons. He’d open a cupboard and reveal giant throwing knives, machetes, and centuries-old dueling pistols. Our parents loved that part.
My grandmother, on the other hand, collected jewelry. When I was younger she wouldn’t tell me where her treasures were hidden, but would lock herself in her study, yelling at me not to come in, and emerge with the most beautiful piece of jewelry I had ever seen; an enamel snake choker that slithered around her neck, a locket containing a tiny scene of a Antoinette–style dinner party. As I grew older — or really, as she grew older — she started sharing her secret hiding places with me. After a few glasses of wine she would beckon me with a twinkle in her eye and pull a book off a shelf, opening it to reveal she had hollowed it out and filled it with jewels.
On Christmas morning, after my brother and I jumped on the floor above the bedroom where our parents were sleeping to unceremoniously wake them up, we would sometimes find some of the less fragile of those treasures wrapped in colorful tissue paper and ribbons and put under the tree, our names written on them in swirling cursive.
When my mother and I arrived in Berkeley, the painful bureaucracy of this global tragedy kicked into gear.
The hospital said they were only allowing one person in for visits. Not one at a time — one total, the whole time my grandmother was a patient there. My mother has a sister who was flying in from Connecticut — were they supposed to decide which of them got to see their mother on her deathbed? Did I take this selfish risk for nothing?
But the doctors weren’t sure how long it would take for my grandmother to die, hours or weeks, and it seemed they might let my grandmother go home, to die in a morphine haze, surrounded by her things, by the nature and view she loved. But they also might not.
I tried to book a COVID test as soon as we landed so I could stop wearing my mask around my parents and hug my mom in the way she needed. But tests were getting harder to access everywhere with the coming holidays, and nowhere I looked up had appointments for weeks.
While the house is big and airy enough for us to keep our distance in it, it was strange to be there without my grandmother. I kept expecting her to come plodding in from her study, where she had taken to sleeping in her later years so she wouldn’t have to climb the small, steep spiral staircase to her bedroom. I kept almost hearing her voice asking me who I was seeing nowadays, whether I was liking my job.
Instead, I sat alone in her cold, slate-floored kitchen as my mom drove to the hospital, spending hours pressing “refresh” on a screen attempting to book a rapid COVID test.
By my second morning in Berkeley, the doctors had called to say that my grandmother had taken a turn for the worse. They had decided to make an exception to their one-visitor rule so I could come say goodbye. They put my name on the list at the hospital door, like I was going to some sort of exclusive nightclub. They even carded me.
In the hospital, I gave my mom a break for a couple of hours and took her place next to my grandmother, shrunken in her hospital bed. She hadn’t opened her eyes all day, the nurses said, but after my mom left she finally did. She looked like she didn’t quite recognize me. I took off my mask momentarily and her small, lashless blue eyes softened. She grabbed hold of my hand and squeezed it surprisingly hard, saying, “Thank you, thank you,” over and over again. Then she went back to sleep.
I had last seen my grandmother a year ago, with the whole family celebrating Christmas at her house. My brother has a 5-year-old son now, and we were showing him all the treasures, giving him the same experiences in that house we had loved so much as kids.
My grandmother has always been fiercely independent and completely intolerant of being babied, condescended to, or pitied, a trait my mother and I both inherited. But this made it hard to take care of her in her old age, to point out to her that her memory might be slipping. This last visit, my grandmother’s dementia was in a particularly bad state, especially after having too much of her favorite chardonnay.
One time, as I was sitting with my nephew on my lap, she turned to me and said, “Is this your son?” And after a stunned silence she added, “I’m sorry, I don’t know who you are.”
I decided that that Christmas visit would be a good time to tell her that I date women. After dinner one night, I went to see her in her study.
“Oh, Ema!” She responded with excitement, reaching her hands upward in a dramatic gesture of celebration. “That’s wonderful, I’m so happy for you.”
She proceeded to tell me that she had always thought about being a lesbian, though she’d never acted on it. When she was writing book reviews for a magazine in San Francisco in the early s — a part of her life I hadn’t known about — all of her friends were lesbians, she said.
She said they all wore these beautiful tailored black silk suits and white cravats that she “lusted after” and sipped martinis at covert lesbian bars after work, discussing art and literature. They were “powerful, those queers” she told me, drawing out the word into three syllables, “and much more fun than anyone else I knew.” She became particularly close with one woman, she told me, and they would frequently have drinks and attend parties together.
“Ema, was that absolutely horrible of me?” She asked very seriously, grabbing my arm and looking into my eyes. “Did I lead her on? Was that cruel?” (My grandfather had affairs throughout their marriage, but from what we know she never strayed.) I told her I didn’t think it was horrible, though things were different back then, I couldn’t be sure. It wasn’t for me to say.
“I’ve always felt terribly about that,” she said, sinking back into her habitual spot on her sofa bed, resting her hands on the book she was reading. “Anyhow,” she said, waving away the memory like it was a fly. “I love you very much. You’re going to have a very exciting life.”
My grandmother died overnight, hours after my aunt arrived to say goodbye.
In the days after my grandmother’s death, the days leading up to Thanksgiving, my parents and I stayed on a different floor of the house from my aunt and uncle, always wearing masks while in the same room, leaving the windows wide open, and trying as hard as we could to keep our distance. My aunt and my mother hadn’t seen each other in about a decade, despite both living on the East Coast. Until now.
“I wish we could all just hug each other,” my aunt kept saying. But we were stuck 6 feet apart, only able to show our emotions over our masks, with our eyes.
Instead, we got to work. We spent days searching the house from top to bottom, turning out every drawer, pocket, piece of crumpled tissue, trying to find anything precious we shouldn’t throw away. We pulled up secret safes under floorboards and opened up books that might contain a mischievous hint: Treasure Island, The Midas Touch.
In the last few years of my grandmother’s life, some of the many things in her house started disappearing: paintings, jewelry, even some of my grandfather’s guns. She slept much of the day and left the lights in the house off (and sometimes the doors unlocked), making it seem like no one was home. Plus she was mostly deaf and wouldn’t be able to hear people rifling around.
One time when I was visiting, I woke up to heavy footsteps running across the roof above me. Another time, I went to the kitchen to get water and swear I saw someone on the porch, disappearing into the shadows.
Her house was still full of heaps of things, however, so much more than we had thought. At first it was fun, little beautiful things bringing back memories, but soon it became exhausting. There was so much junk: every Christmas card they received in , 10 of the same pair of black lounge pants, about 20 pairs of scissors. Room by room, category by category, we laid it all out, trying to decide what to do with it: keep, sell, donate, toss.
Ritual is one of the chief things this pandemic has taken from us. For so many, the holidays are about returning to our childhood home, showing our kids or partners what our lives were like before they were around, gathering with those who still are, reliving memories through tradition. Even if you haven’t experienced a death in the family, the loss of these reunions is still hard. So hard that many people continue to put their lives, and the lives of their family members, at risk to still have a version of it.
A part of my family was lucky, or foolish, enough to be able to be in the same place at all during this time, though the situation didn’t lend much time for reminiscing. My brother couldn’t make it to join us. Because New York had shut down schools due to coronavirus spikes, he was stuck being a parent-teacher-babysitter-entertainer-IT guy for his 5-year-old. We continued the holiday tradition of hunting for my grandparents’ treasure without him.
After I left, my mother and my aunt had an unceremonious burial of my grandmother’s ashes. They hugged, finally, and cried.
But for me, going through my grandparents’ possessions was the ritual. And doing this for the last time was the closest thing to a funeral I would have. ●
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It became a little cooler, but after a couple of minutes a hot, heavy hand lay on her chest, apparently, Igor even in his sleep wanted. To hug his wife. It felt good to know that, so she didn't resist. Stupid, you stupid, why do you drink like that, Lena thought with a tired sigh and closed her eyes tightly.