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4 Lessons Grief Has Taught Me

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August 2017 will mark four years since I lost my grandmother to cancer. I still remember that day like it was yesterday (and that’s saying something, because I usually suck at remembering things). I still feel the pain today that I felt in that moment.

Over the last few years, as I’ve tried to navigate a life without my grandma, something I’ve never known, I’ve started to realize there are some things grief has taught me.

1. Standards for grieving can be a load of crap. One day, I found a pamphlet that outlined a basic societal standard for grief. Three days for the funeral and to be emotional in public. A year and a half at most to be emotional in private, and then you move on as best you can.

I think I actually crumpled it up and said, “What a load of crap,” because, c’mon, it is.

Three days to be emotional in public? I still cry when I’m in the middle of a store at Christmastime trying to buy what I need to make cookies. I still cry when I’m in the middle of the craft store and I see things I used to do with my grandma as a kid or supplies for those things we used to do. (Note to self; stray away from the beads…just stray away.)

A year and a half to be emotional in private? I cannot get through an episode of Steve Harvey’s show without crying or turning off the TV and throwing the remote far, far away. I can’t make ham and cheese sandwiches or scrambled eggs anymore. I’m tearing up at the thought of ham and cheese sandwiches. 

If “moving on” from my loved one is a thing, yeah, I’m far from it, pal.

2. Every memory is going to hurt, even the good ones. When we finally decided the best place for Grams was hospice, that very first day was one I don’t think will ever escape my mind. We were getting her settled, she wasn’t all there, sort of delirious, but she said something that let us know Grams, at least for now, was still Grams. I’d pushed it to the back of my mind for a while after she died. The other day I remembered what she said, and it made me laugh, and smile, but also sad. That’s happened with a lot of memories; sitting down and asking her questions about history events she’d lived through and I was interested in, like JFK, September 11, among others. Making crafts with her as a kid to support the troops fighting overseas. Staying up late to watch “The Golden Girls” or chilling on her bed watching daytime TV. Poking fun at her for her love of the movie “Sabrina” and making her laugh when I started quoting scenes word for word. These are all good memories I have, and in these memories are lessons I’ll cherish forever. These memories created a legacy that I hope to continue one day.

But there’s an ache in my chest when I think of these — one that hasn’t, and will never, go away.

3. None of it is your fault; it’s no one’s fault. After my grandma passed, I needed to find someone to blame or something to blame. Blaming it on cancer, the one truly at fault, wasn’t good enough for me. I looked for someone to fault all the time — her PCP for not catching the signs of her cancer sooner and her oncologist for not working hard enough were big ones in the first couple of weeks.

Then, with my faith already strained, I started to blame God, alternating between blaming him for everything and bargaining for ways to get my grams back. Night after night I asked him how He could possibly do this to my family, to me. I swore I’d never go to church again. I said a lot of things a kid who was raised in a home devoted to our faith and love and belief in Christ probably shouldn’t have said to God…and then I begged for forgiveness because I convinced myself my grandmother would go to Hell as punishment for my words.

At some point, I started to shift the blame onto myself. I told myself, convinced myself, that I should’ve gone to the hospital more. That I shouldn’t have made up excuses because I didn’t want to have to see her like that. That I shouldn’t have complained when she wanted a hug or a kiss just because I didn’t want to bend over, even though I loved my grandma’s hugs. That I should’ve had her teach me everything she knew about cooking and baking and maybe my grandpa wouldn’t hurt so bad. That I was selfish for thinking of myself when she needed me the most.

About a year or two after she passed, my blame turned to regret. I regret not going to the hospital more. I regret all the times I complained about her hugs. I regret not learning how to make things like her famous dumplings, or how she’d cook Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, or all her little treats to a great Easter meal. I regret not saying I love you more. I regret not telling her how much she meant to me. How much she truly was my best friend.

What I should have blamed from the start was the lymphoma and pancreatic cancer that took her from us. What I should’ve told myself was if I had camped out in the hospital lobby, told her I loved her every five minutes, paid attention to how she made meals during holidays, none of it would’ve mattered in the end.

It wouldn’t save her, because nothing and no one could. Her doctors did all they could. My family gave her all the love we could give. I believe God was with her always, by her side, walking with her until her body couldn’t fight anymore. As much as I wanted my love to save her, it couldn’t. My love was strong, but cancer was stronger. While I wanted to blame myself, it isn’t my fault.

4. Grief doesn’t go away. For me, it’s more like learning to say “ah forget it” and learning to figure out ways to move on with your day-to-day life while life as you once knew it implodes and explodes around you anyway. Take it one minute at a time and slowly graduate to higher increments if and when you can. There’s no shame in taking things five or 10 minutes at a time. Don’t rush yourself.

It might not get easier at times, it might get harder at times, but it will get different. In my experience, slowly you adjust to that different in the ways you know how. It’ll take time; it won’t happen in a week, and it might not happen in a month or even in a year or two, but adjustment can happen. Slow and steady. There might also be setbacks.

It’s OK.

You’ll be OK.

We’re going to be OK.

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Originally published: June 12, 2017
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