Upon the Loss of My Grandmother


loss of grandparentThere are so many things that make getting older better.

You have grown up, learned what is important in life, and are confident about living your values. You have had time to find a collection of amazing friends who are effectively an extension of your family. With luck, you have found a partner and have started a beautiful family that has a way of bringing you joy even when times are tough. You have reenacted traditions of old and started some new ones of your own. You have really gotten to know yourself.

However, the downside of getting older starts with the little things like the warranty expiring on various parts of your body, which brings new aches and pains year by year. And then come the big things like enduring the loss of a loved one. And another. And another.

I know I am lucky to have known five great-grandparents and three grandparents in my life. They loved me, and I was taught to cook, make a fire in the fireplace, play spades, grow a great garden, catch a fish, speak truth to power, balance a checkbook, and spread love and kindness to others by them collectively. So much of who I am today is thanks to my amazing grandparents.

This year I have lost my two grandmothers, the last of my grandparents, and I was very close to both of them. It has been so hard. I have cried a lot. I have hidden away from everyone, and I have also shared heartfelt conversations with friends experiencing these same transitions.

Before this most recent death, while I was helping to manage my grandmother’s care, I even found myself talking to near-strangers who are in similar caregiving situations because I just wanted to make sure I was thinking carefully about all of the choices. It has been so hard, and I have never felt so tired and filled with doubt that I am always ensuring she was getting the best care.

With the recent loss of my grandmother, it is the end of that generation in my family, and it just reminds me that, alas, my parents are likely next (but hopefully not for many years to come). I feel grateful that my parents are still with us, but I couldn’t help but nag them to get their wills in order and to write down what their final wishes will be so that I have more information when I am making choices for them in the future. Talk about challenging and emotional conversations.

And as I sit here thinking about death, I realize that the personal meaning of death has really changed for me over the years. When I lost my first grandparent as a girl of 6, death meant very little to me, it was abstract, distant. And since it was happening to people that I didn’t know as well, or who I spent less time with, it had a smaller impact on me. As the years have rolled on and my own mortality became more apparent, each additional death has hit me with extra force. Each person is closer and closer to me.

There are more and more shared moments and memories made with each of these people that die. And honestly, I get afraid to imagine what life will be like in the future when the next person leaves us.

But at the same time, I think again and again about those lessons taught to me by my grandparents. Each of those memories is a funny story to share. I think of how I was taught to do amazing things by these people that brought so much love into my life. I spread that love, along with the knowledge of whatever skill I was taught all of those years ago. And I retell these stories as I pass on the lessons to my children.

These memories are initially wrapped in so much pain at the loss of the person who helped make them. Yet they slowly evolve so that the pain becomes less intense, and glimmers of the light from memory start to shine brighter. The sorrow becomes transformed into strength to channel their spirit in acts of kindness in the world so that their memory can help touch and support others.

The hurt never goes away. The loss and the missing of a chance for one more conversation are always there. But at the same time, I can feel the ripples in the pool of life started by my grandparents being reinforced by each recipe, lesson, or trick that I can pass on to others.

It certainly isn’t easier getting older, but when I realize how those that have left this Earth have shaped me into the person that I am, it feels a little easier to imagine how the future will unfold. And I can always hope that others will feel the wake of my grandparent’s life for many, many years to come.

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Erika is a professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies and mom to two kids (2010 and 2013) plus two cats (2005 and 2019). A Midwestern transplant who has lived in 32 places, she has happily called Fairfield her home for the past 12 years. At work, she directs a program to support first-generation and underrepresented student success in science. In town, she can often be found driving her kids back and forth to their respective sporting events and teams or sitting in a coffee shop using the wifi to get a little work done before pick up. Erika loves spending time enjoying the water, cooking, theater, reading, and hanging out with her husband.


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