My maternal grandfather died in 2004, when I was 14. I was deeply saddened by his death and when tasked with playing “Amazing Grace” on the piano at his funeral, I broke down midway through and couldn’t continue. I also couldn’t figure out how to comfort those who were grieving around me, including my 8-year-old brother, who my mom said I didn’t even try to hug upon seeing him sobbing. She shared that she was angry with me about that a few months later and I didn’t know how to explain it. I didn’t know how to react to other people’s grief; it made me uncomfortable. And I’m worried about the same thing happening this week, when I head back to my hometown to join my family as we bury my maternal grandma, who died on Thanksgiving Day.
Maybe I can do this, I thought. But there was still a little part of me that was relieved when she left because I could finally be alone again with just my own grief to keep me company.
My mom got the call about my grandma’s death just two minutes after walking into my apartment on Thursday. I could see she went into shock immediately and my brain told me what I should do. Comfort her, Amelia, I told myself. I sat her down on my couch, I wrapped my arms around her, and I called her “Momma.” We talked about how my grandma hadn’t been herself for over a year, since a stroke stole her interest in eating and her ability to bathe herself without assistance. She had even stopped telling the same stories over and over, like a broken record, as she now sat quietly instead. When she did speak, it was slurred and almost incomprehensible. Those same stories that used to irritate us—like the one about how she saw Elvis perform and remarked to a man after the show that he wasn’t very good and that man turned out to be Elvis’ father—we had come to really miss. My mom and I both cried and I felt like I was doing this grieving and comforting thing right this time. But when my brother, now 25, came over for dinner, I found the hug I gave him to be awkward and I immediately thought I was an a**hole for not being able to comfort him fully. I hid in the kitchen for the rest of the afternoon, cooking the Thanksgiving meal that we were determined to eat despite the sad news.
I spent the rest of the weekend almost completely alone with my thoughts. On Friday night, I had a regular booty call come over for a sleepover, which was a great distraction and I’ll admit I found the cuddling afterward to be a comfort. Yesterday, my mom came over and we watched “Gone with the Wind,” my grandma’s and my favorite movie, and cleaned out my closet. It felt good to keep my mom company. I gave her a bunch of cashmere sweaters I no longer wore, because she never spends any money on herself. Maybe I can do this, I thought. I’m helping. But there was still a little part of me that was relieved when she left because I could finally be alone again with just my own grief to keep me company.
On Thursday, my mom, my brother, and I are all flying out to San Diego for my grandma’s funeral. My mom has indicated that she needs to be surrounded by those she loves right now, which is why the three of us are not only flying together, but taking the train to the airport together too. I’ve had to bite my tongue so I don’t say that taking a taxi from work would actually be easier for me. Because it’s not about what’s more convenient for me this weekend.
After the funeral, the whole family—the three of us, my aunt, uncle, four cousins, and assorted others—are going to lunch at El Torito, my grandma’s favorite chain restaurant (a close second is Red Lobster). Then we’ll go to my aunt’s house, where we’ll play my grandma’s favorite music—everything from Frank Sinatra to Eric Clapton—and share stories about her, because she was the type of woman who always made you smile. I’ll talk about how she was always inflating the stories I told her about my life in New York. When I interviewed Lisa Marie Presley for a teeny tiny piece in Rolling Stone years ago, she told everyone I was “good friends with Elvis’ daughter.” When I began dating my ex, who worked at CBS at the time, she referred to him as the “head of the network” even though he was just an ad sales assistant. Of my job at The Frisky, which is affiliated with Turner Broadcasting? “You work with Ted Turner every day don’t you, sweetheart? Remember when he was married to Jane Fonda?” I’ll talk about how I still get cravings for sauerkraut and crushed-up Ramen soup and cucumber salads because those were the foods she always made for me as a kid.
I know the experience is going to be emotional and my natural instinct is going to be to run so I don’t have to face the discomfort of seeing people I love feeling so raw. I don’t know why seeing other people grieve freaks me out so much, but I don’t expect I’ll understand it or overcome it completely in the next few days. But I’m old enough now to know that the best thing I can do for myself and for those I love and to honor my grandma’s memory is to suck it up.
Original by Amelia McDonell-Parry