The tires hit the runway and I can’t see the view over all the lights of California anymore. My dad picks me up and I’m whisked into a room with a body that is definitely no longer my Grandpa, and then other rooms, with other people, food, drinks, crying, not crying, distraction, presence, pain, avoidance, uncertainty.
We take my grandmother to my parents house and at 100 she’s always had my grandfather, or caregivers, with her at night. So we climb into my bed and I cuddle up to her, knowing how comforting physical touch can be when life is reeling out of control. Her face turns into the face of a child, alone, disoriented, not sure of her place, both not wanting to be a burden and also not able to take care of herself. Through the night she speaks to me, about wishing she was gone too, about what will happen to her, about grandpa not even seeming that sick. I can feel her terror, she knows that everything has just changed. She’s not ready. I’m so tired but I know it doesn’t really matter if I actually get to sleep tonight. We adjust warmth, layers, positions throughout the night, get her to the bathroom and back, and finally in the early morning she snores.
In the morning she begins to feel anger, mostly at god. Why would god give to us to then take away? My grandma doesn’t like this system and says so, in these words “it’s a stupid system.” It seems “unnatural” to her. Death itself she says is unnatural. From anger she goes into despair, and back again. She wants to leave, to be taken too, to shoot herself, or walk in front of a car. This stage is so painful for her that the idea of death seems pretty good, better at least. We joke that guns and car accidents would be pretty messy, so she mentions morphine. Her mind is trying to find the way out.
I stay with her for a few hours in bed, cuddling with her, holding her hand, and being present as she talks, cries, rages, and dissociates her way through this particular bardo.
My feelings come up in a different way that day, a way that I didn’t expect: anger at my family.
I expected to come home to shared grief and heartbreak but I can’t find those feelings in my family members. I search their faces, their actions, their hearts… mostly what I feel is a buzzing up at the surface and a resistance to feeling the impact of what has just happened. My mind knows people process loss differently, and my mind knows that our ineptness at this process isn’t our faults. But my heart is having none of that rationalization or understanding, I just feel angry. This damn broken culture and its damn damn damn distracted avoidance of feeling anything uncertain and uncomfortable. Damn it.
Stephen Jenkinson said something the other night about a family with a plan…watch out, I think he said. All this talk of plans and logistics take us away from the memories, the absence in the room, the grief of that woman lying there, our own grief… as I feel my grief I notice that people don’t engage me, don’t look at me, don’t want to feel me either. The rage it touches in me is hard to feel and hard to contain.
You see, in my heart I feel this is all wrong. This isn’t how it should feel… it should feel held. Our neighbors and extended family should be taking care of this so we can grieve. There should be rituals and customs that connect us backwards to our ancestors. Rituals that connect us to the truth that life continues even when we do not. Ritual that hold us in tested wisdom so we don’t have to make decisions about what to eat, wear, do, etc. Rituals that remind us that we are not alone in our loss, and that we are experiencing something so important to being human that people thought very carefully over the years of how best to take care of us during this time.
At least we should have this for a little while.
And I know that’s a lot of shoulds… but
I am simply longing to be in the quiet disturbed wake of his passing with the other people who I shared him with in this lifetime…
I want to hear stories, and feel his amazing lifetime honored with temporarily broken hearts… and I feel alone in wanting this, in needing this, as I look around at people who keep saying “well it was his time to go” as though this logic is all that exists.
And it was his time to go. He was 96 and a half, died in bed next to his 100 year old wife of 70 years. It wasn’t a painful death, and his friends and family were around. All told this describes what many people hope for in their passing. But grieving him isn’t about making his death wrong. I think it’s about entering a space of conflicting feelings that defy logic, a place of both desolate emptiness and rich fullness… entering this quiet disturbed wake of his passing, together, and exploring this strange new landscape where he is no longer here. It’s about feeling things that we don’t often have the opportunity to feel… like some of the deepest love, or anger, or despair, or loneliness, maybe…
So the grief I feel is two-fold, the grief of the loss and the grief of missing out on a shared grieving process. Probably like so many other people and families across this country and others, we enter into this place of loss alone and rather than together, we don’t grow closer to each other and feel more deeply… in fact maybe we struggle to find what we feel at all.
And I can’t fix this. I can’t fix it or make it better for myself or anyone else. Not with all my will power, not with the best strategies in the world. Not with all my good intentions and love and care. I can’t fix the culture that has us so fucking clueless about how to be with my grandma or our own experiences. None of it. As I really start to see that I feel yet another kind of grief, a loss of hope for our culture ever really being healed in this way. But I also feel peace, acceptance, and some kind of comfort in that I am facing the world as it truly is right now.
In accepting this brokenness my task is different than it would be if I could fix it; my task is now to simply feel. Feel the grief. Feel the brokenness. Feel people doing their best. Feel my anger and helplessness. And continue to live.
Our family spends time on logistics, talking about the future and what we’ll do. No one talks about the hole that just opened in our hearts and lives… the loss of a father, a grandfather. It’s curiously unfillable, unfixable. For now it seems that all I can do is wrap myself around her frail body for a night, and hold her hand, and listen to her, and listen to myself, and be in this new, strange place with her. Her skin is increasingly transparent and it reveals the beautiful and intricate work of bones and blood. For a moment I get lost thinking about all that those hands, those bones, those veins, those tendons, have done in 100 years. What they’ve held for her, what they’ve helped her accomplish. They’re so beautiful, these old hands.
I wish I could say there is wisdom in how we’re holding this, but the sacred doorway of loss and change is not being tended or watched- there is a managing of surface level things, and a deeper acknowledgement that feels absent, even in my grandmother. I see in her the makings of bitterness and I pray that it doesn’t go that way. I saw it in my other grandmother too. They both spoke about having lived good lives, been good mothers and wives, as though the loss was done to them as a punishment… rather than simply the inevitable dance we have to agree to if we choose to love anything in this world. I pray that this passes as a stage of grief when she’s ready and doesn’t become a place she inhabits for the rest of her days.
Bitterness- learning the wrong lessons from life’s betrayals. Choosing to close the heart as a long-term stance to protect from other hurt rather than allowing ourselves, someday, maybe not the first week, or the first year, but allowing ourselves someday to be opened, softened, even wizened by life’s betrayals.
I find myself sitting outside under the pepper tree where our old family dogs are buried smoking some tobacco and praying and my heart says yes to me. This will not be right or perfect. It will be muddy and painful. Do it anyway, love anyway, open anyway, allow anyway, be with your people and do your best. Let it be an honoring of your grandfather and everything he lived and spoke. Such was his gentle, humble, and generous spirit. You have this too.