The Absurd Awkwardness of Bereavement

Did I tell you my grandmother died? No? She died about 10 p.m. on Sept. 22, 2010, in her sleep. She was 90.

And though she had been fading, after a fall that broke her hip and made death pretty much inevitable. And though she died at home, cared for mostly by family, after a few years of poor health and lessening quality of life.  And though her life had been full–of children (five) and grandchildren (six) and great-grandchildren (six), of travel and adventure as the young wife of an Air Force commander in the post-World War II years, of interests (bird watching, gardening, politics watching). And though she could hardly have been said to have been cheated of life or cut down in her prime.

Yet, I am sad. I miss her. Before she died, I didn’t let myself reminisce about my childhood with her as my grandmother. I didn’t spend much time thinking about how she taught my brother and me to play poker one summer day when we were visiting her. I didn’t go over the special birthday meals she used to make me–the enchiladas and Spanish rice she specialized in (no one made Spanish rice like my grandmother). I didn’t think about the treats she always had for us–ice cream sandwiches, Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries, Popsicles and other sugary foods not found at my house. I didn’t recall the family gatherings of my childhood, like the one where my then-single uncle stood up on the roof of the garage and yelled, and my grandmother (his mother) said, “Oh, Bruce!” and laughed.

It seems morbid to have fond memories of people who are not dead, so I mostly waited to talk about her in the past tense. And even now, I haven’t really found the conversational opening to share “the news” with anyone outside, well, my husband and one coworker. Because I am almost embarrassed to even say she died to anyone else. (I’m not even sure how you do that: “How was your weekend?” “My grandmother died.”) She was an important person in my life. She influenced me in ways I’ll probably never get to the end of–especially because she influenced my own mother, her oldest child, in ways she‘ll never get to the end of.

But other people are suffering. Other people have coped with miscarriages or stillbirths or the deaths of their own grown children or their parents or their spouses. And I have sometimes been a poor friend in acknowledging others’ grief. Maybe I even found it awkward–and didn’t know what to say to the coworker I don’t see very often, who lost her father, and who didn’t say anything about it. And what do you say? I always say, “I’m sorry.” And I always am. But grief goes on, sadness goes on, regret goes on, and those little, inadequate words have always seemed just that. Especially when someone else seems to be “coping” and “moving on.”

Or other people are happy and celebrating. And it doesn’t seem like the right time–really ever–to say, “By the way, my 90-year-old grandmother died. I’m a bit sad.”

I’m not even sure how sad I’m supposed to be. I was having a phone conversation with my brother, and I asked him how he was. He said, “I’m okay … Sorry about Grandmommy…” And I laughed. “Why did you laugh?” he said. (I’d misunderstood.) I answered, “It sounded like you were offering me condolences.” That’s how I feel–because I wasn’t the closest person to my grandmother, so to whom do I offer condolences? Even as I feel sad myself, I recognize my grandmother’s husband, children, sons- and daughters-in-law have a greater claim on the share of grief and sympathy out there.

What’s more complicated is that my grandmother’s wishes were: no funeral, no memorial. So there’s little public acknowledgment of her death. (I’m hoping not to violate her privacy, or her husband’s, by not naming her.)

Speaking of death, I just finished reading Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, about the stillbirth of her first child, and birth of her second. I had wanted to read her book for a while, since I saw an excerpt in O magazine, actually. (See my post on O.) But I didn’t think I could take such a sad, sad story. And yet I managed to read it–and adore it–without crying. Much. And it did actually speak to me, even in my very dissimilar grief. Because McCracken writes about her own particular grief and history, but her story is a universal one. We all lose people. We all must go on. Sometimes we have to pretend to be cheerful when we are not, for other people. Sometimes we don’t say “Someone close to me died” because there’s really no good way to insert those words into the conversation. (I could go on and on about that slender book packed with humor and humanity and bizarre characters and compassionate friends and profound sadness and well-earned joy.)

So I’m beginning to say the words here, belatedly and inadequately. I recognize that I was so lucky to have a grandmother who lived to be 90. I still have my grandfather, her husband, a vigorous 96-year-old.

But I am sad. I miss Grandmommy. I do.


10 responses to “The Absurd Awkwardness of Bereavement

  1. So sorry to hear about your grandmother. She was a great lady–I met her a few times when they were in San Antonio. Grief is hard, no matter if they are old or young, sick or healthy, friend or relative. Going through some similar grief myself, and I catch myself suddenly remembering she’s no longer there. Every once in awhile I expect her to walk around the corner, or ride by on her bike. Weird, hard, sad, and talking about it seems to cheapen the experience somehow, yet I can’t seem to talk about much else these days. In some ways, it’s comforting to know the experience seems universal; and we all need to go through it. The fact that there are none of the usual grieving rituals to go through makes it harder, I think. There’s no catharsis, no family or community support. Funerals are really for the living, after all…

    • Thank you, Meghan, for stopping by. It helps to remember our missing people–in writing or speaking about them. It keeps them alive for us. It’s all we have. I’m so sorry to hear about your friend. Did you know Elizabeth McCracken is at UT also? Her memoir is, well, a balm for the grieving soul.

  2. Somehow in talking about how hard it is to find the words, you found them for yourself and all of us, Reid.


  3. It’s simple. It stinks and I’m sorry. Sometimes, people are embarrassed to tell me their dog died and they are very sad. But they are very sad for that dog was an extension of them. Something that made them complete and something for which they were the intregal piece. Something that made life. And life is what we have.
    So, I’m sorry a piece that made you is gone even if it was a piece you had a long time. I think ever expression of sympathy helps for they gracefully move us toward our next wholeness.
    Love you.

  4. Oh, I’m sorry. I think you captured this feeling so well, the weirdness of not feeling like you have the right, somehow, to grieve. And the particular sadness of that gradual fading away. I had a great-aunt I felt particularly close to who lived a long, long, long (it was really long) life, and spent her last years not all there, but I still ached when she was gone, and it was hard to say that, even to those closest to me.

    Your grandmother seems like she was an amazing woman, full of love and life. Of course you’re sad. And again, I’m sorry.

    • Like your great-aunt, my grandmother was not all there in her latter years. But even in the years when she was sharp and herself, she seemed surprisingly forgetful of basic information in a way that was a commentary in itself. For instance, she loved football and sometimes would find me–someone who has always failed to understand that sport, among others–in a room with a TV on which a football game was playing. And she’d say, “Are you watching that? Oh that’s right: You don’t like football.” It was a ritual. But it didn’t spring from vagueness, it was just “her way.” And so the gradual loss of her personality, in her late 80s, was interspersed with episodes where she was all there. And sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. Thank you for reading and reflecting and sharing a recollection on my blog. I am grateful for your sympathy and kind words.

  5. I think one of the difficulties with the grandparental death is that we all have such different grandparental experiences. For some, a grandparent is a funny-smelling and remote grownup seen once or twice a year; for others, a grandparent is a parental substitute (for example). And I think when you communicate your grief in losing someone, you unconsciously rely on the person hearing about the grief immediately imagining that it’s her own loss (“Oh my god, your mother died? I don’t know what I’d DO if my mother died!”) But this is hard to imagine when you don’t know your listeners’ grandparental connections.

    Anyhow. I’m so sorry. One of the hardest things for me when my grandpa died (at 97, the last of my grandparents) was suddenly being cut off from a part of my past I’d always assumed would be there.

  6. Thanks for commenting and commiserating. It’s true that among my regrets is my inability to find out more about my grandmother’s life. It happened over years of distance, both physical and emotional, and the opportunity, obviously, is now gone.

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