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How I've Learned to Grow After the Trauma of My Grandma's Death

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My grandmother died at 7:58 p.m. on March 17, 2017.

It may not seem significant, since the death of a grandparent is usually the first death a person goes through, but for me, it sparked a time period of post-traumatic growth that continues on to this day, 20 months later.

My grandmother was the one person I could always look to for advice, and after she died it marked a new divide, so-to-speak. Though I lost a big part of what shaped my childhood and my (at that point) opinions and beliefs, I developed an entirely new outlook on life from a social and psychological standpoint. Through heartbreak, depression, self-destruction, creation and ultimately post-traumatic growth, her death sparked my, to date, biggest period of personal growth and a new understanding of my fellow people. It helped me understand that sometimes things refuse to go the way we plan. And, as quoted by one of my favorite bands, Linkin Park in their song “The Messenger,” “When life leaves us blind, love keeps us kind.”

I know it may seem a little odd that a grandparent’s death affected me in such a dramatic, intense way, but my grandmother and I had a really special relationship. For better or worse, she was my mother figure up until she died, I spent a lot of my childhood with her, and she taught me early on about how the world works, she played a huge part in my identity. Everything from my political views to my clothing taste was influenced by her. When she passed, it was almost unreal.

Everything was out of focus, and I don’t really remember the six months after she passed. It was my own private hell. I found it difficult to find the motivation to do anything but lay on my bed and feel hopeless. I hated visiting the cemetery every month. Firstly, I didn’t enjoy seeing her in that quiet cemetery, surrounded by her fellow humans who met their mortal nature, some 100 years before her, some mere days before her. It wasn’t that bad when I was surrounded by the living since I couldn’t be left with my thoughts. But the cold months was when it was the worst. It was awful. It still is. There was snow burying her fake plastic flowers, surrounding the bottle of Diet Coke I bought her, everything covered in the cold, bitter white stuff. Nobody dared visit the cemetery when it was this cold. I could go home and turn on music and watch television and then go out later and get something to eat — but my grandma couldn’t. I couldn’t stand it. And I knew it was only her body and her living being was not in that coffin, but I couldn’t stand to stay there long anyway. I haven’t been there for a few months now. I just wish she didn’t have to be there.

Eventually, I turned to what I knew best to help me cope with the loss of my grandma: art. Since I was in first grade, I’d been a student of the arts. I love making things that people can connect to. I like it when people get excited about things. It’s nice. I decided I couldn’t lay there and wait for a sign to let me know it’s OK to come out of the shell. When I was making my art, all I was thinking was among the lines of “draw in your sketchbook, just capture the essential truth of whatever is happening to you at this moment.” The result became numerous artworks, poetry pieces, and conversations with myself that served as emotive moments of my mental and emotional state as I came to terms with it all. I call this time period the blue period — a truthful, therapeutic and soul-searching process at its core, it’s very much about healing and hope as it is about loss.

But through it all, I truly believe this all sparked a period of post-traumatic growth for me that is still ongoing to this day.

As I write this, I have been accepted by my college of choice, the University of Iowa. I have many more friends and a bigger support system than I’ve ever had at any time in my life, I’m in a community full of people who are ready to help me up in case I fall down, just as I’m prepared to do with them. That’s the golden rule of mental illness and support systems — when someone falls down, we help them back up. Love keeps us kind, and I wouldn’t have any of this had I not learned that essential truth.

It has been incredibly emotional for me these last 19 months, even as I write this. But I feel that by doing these things, I’ve not only faced my biggest fears, but it has enabled me to use my talents to bring light to people who are in similar situations as myself. We all need help sometimes, and I want everyone to understand it’s nothing to be ashamed of. As I move forward to my graduation in 2019 and beyond, I think about the people who connected with me in some form or another, outside and inside my friend circle, even you reading this. I feel that by continuing on and championing the idea of helping people, my work becomes a gesture of goodwill to the people that want that connection. People who need that connection. People who need to know they’re not alone in their struggles, and there’s always a seat here alongside me. Though I still struggle every day with depression and anxiety, my motto remains strong: “When life leaves us blind, love keeps us kind.” It is my magnum opus, and I wouldn’t have ever found that goal if my life hadn’t been flipped upside down just a mere twenty months ago.

That’s my story. If you’re reading this and you’ve just lost a person near and dear to your heart, please understand it does get better. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, or next week, but there will come a day when you’ll feel better. Please never ever believe that you are alone in this battle. I am so happy that you exist. Get out there and face the world. You may just find something worth fighting for.

Follow this writer on Twitter @smellsliketom.

Getty image by KatarzynaBialasiewicz.

Originally published: June 29, 2019
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