Grief, suspended. Grief controlled?

My grandmother died two weeks ago. A few hours shy of two weeks actually.

The phone call from my sister broke time in a way we are all familiar with. It really shouldn't have, probably-- it had been a long time coming. She wasn't well, as a matter of fact she wasn't herself. She had Alzheimer's. But physically she was relatively strong. She'd had bouts of infection and a few other things, any one of which probably could've killed her if not for profound attention her daughters paid to every little change. Some weeks before she died a blood test revealed that she probably had some kind of cancer, but given her condition nobody wanted to put her through invasive tests to figure out exactly what kind it was. Her daughters signed her up with hospice. About six months was their prediction. Even that was hard on the daughters. In the end, her end was a lot gentler than her last several years.

The last several years were awful. Watching a strong person diminish is never easy. Watching a strong person lose themselves, lose their understanding of who surrounds them, lose all their bearings in the world is a particular pain, made worse when you are the caretaker. My mom and my aunt kept trying to relate to their mother, and their mother wasn't there. That made it worse.

My rabbi visited us in the hospital, when I was being induced. My son still in me, we talked about funeral arrangements. She explained the Jewish custom of quick burial by quoting from sacred text: "[y]ou can not be comforted while your dead lie before you." I've thought about this a lot during my grandmother's decline. Removed somewhat from the situation, I could accept a lot earlier than my mom could just how little of the woman we knew remained in the woman my mom was faithfully caring for.

My grandmother, in her time, took care of her own sick and dying mother for many more years than what her daughters ended up doing for her. But my great-grandmother had a stroke and lost her mobility. She was still herself, and so she died when she died. In contrast, I can tell you when my grandmother's body died. I can't tell you when she left, not really. It's been a long time since she recognized anyone. Yet mere weeks before she died, she had a good day when she seemed to know who everyone in the family was. One good hour, really.

So over the course of the last four years, my family had to slowly let go of my grandmother. Expectations, understandings. Memories. Things that bind us together. Bit by bit. Two weeks ago the definitive, indisputable end. Before that? Strange state of suspended grief. Her daughters didn't have their mother anymore. But I don't think they knew how to grieve that, and they didn't really have time for it anyway-- they were her dedicated caretakers, after all.

This story is the opposite of most perinatal death stories. We rarely get any warning, and even those of us who do are never prepared-- we're supposed to be raising them, not burying them. My grandmother had a hard life, full of pain and loss. But she also had a rich life, full of joy and love. She was in her late 70s before her mind started going. My daughter knew her, and even if she doesn't now remember most of their interactions before the onset of the bad part of the disease, she has a sense of her great grandmother. We chose her casket because that color and even the spare details on it was the kind of wood furniture she liked. We knew what she liked. The opposite, you know?

We now know that she realized things were going wrong, and to cope, while she still could, she wrote notes to herself. That makes perfect sense-- too proud to tell anyone, but determined to manage.

My grandmother came to visit us along with my parents and aunt and uncle for Monkey's fifth birthday. That was less than six weeks after A died. While here, she asked to see A's pictures. I now think of that as the very last thing I can confidently say she did as fully herself. After she'd seen them, it seems she let go. Even during that trip, she was not the same after the pictures that she was before. I think she must've written a note to herself about A, about asking for the pictures. Either that or she willed herself to stay fully with it until she did. Task completed, she could let go of the enormous work it took to hold on. (She did not disappear completely after that, but she was less present, and for less time. And for a while after, she remembered A-- she'd talk to my mom about how sad it was.) That's the kind of backbone that defined her. And it took one hell of a disease to be stronger than that.


We took Monkey with us to the funeral and the burial. We didn't take her, less than five years old at the time, with us to A's. She still tells us we were wrong in that decision. She probably always will. She's never been to a funeral, in fact. I think my grandmother's was a sort of a proxy for her. She got to see the casket put in the ground, the kaddish recited, she got to see and hear the dirt hitting the casket-- the hollow sound of finality, of indisputable end. From the safe distance of four plus years and her great-grandmother's eighty three and a half, she could imagine her brother's funeral. The rabbi and the funeral director were incredibly kind to her, and that helped too.

She's perceptive. She gets the difference. She knows great grandmothers die, and it's sad, but it is how life works (though she is not exactly happy about this). Little brothers shouldn't be dying, but hers did, and it's a different kind of pain and grief. And yet, she also gets that sometimes the differences matter very little. We were talking about the different kinds of sad, and that though it is how it is, it is still sad for me that my grandmother died. "It's [my grandma]'s mom" she said, as her eyes got bigger with recognition of the enormity of the loss for someone else. Yes, she was.


Have you encountered death since your child's? How has it been for you?