Yesterday we buried my grandmother which was almost as bad as the day she died. Happiness and good cheer felt like distant memories. They felt like something I had lost when she died. But my grandma knew that even in the darkest times, we can still laugh; we can still smile. Those are the times we need it the most. Smiles and laughter may feel uncomfortable because it may seem like you are moving on or forgetting about her. But it only means that you are learning how to live with loss.
Death requires you to reconfigure your expectations around pleasure and joy. Things that previously brought you joy when your loved one was still alive – mundane things such as getting a promotion, having your nails done, or watching a soccer game – may now be tinged with sadness or nostalgia because your grandmother, partner, or mother isn’t here with you anymore. I absolutely do not advise a “fake it till you make it” approach. It may seem counterintuitive, but to access your joy, you must sit with your grief while allowing natural moments or respite. Cry when you feel like it, shout, whatever makes you feel better.
Everybody deals with death differently. A friend told me when she lost her mother and came back home to her apartment, all she was thinking about was survival. She had to remind herself to eat. She was wildly anxious and depressed, and kept asking herself, “How am I going to get through this? Am I going to get through this?” Those were the two questions running through her brain 24 hours a day. She wasn’t ready to talk about her grief or share memories of her dead mother with her friends or family. She needed a break from it all, but she didn’t even know how to express that.
My grandmother had a hard life with tons of work and lots of suffering. Things turned around when she found the love of her life in her early 70s. She enjoyed many years with him by her side before she got sick. And then she got really sick. And then she fell asleep and never woke up again.
If you are going to live a full life of loss, you have to find a way back to joy. Through all of her physical pain, my grandmother was able to access joy. Experiencing joy for most people is often the simplest thing. My grandmother didn’t have a lot financially, but she saved little bits of money throughout the year to fund her joy, which generally centred around celebrations and giving to others. Rarely to splurge on herself. She did whatever she needed to make it happen, even if making it happen simply involved sitting in a wheelchair, or even a hospital bed, bossing the rest of us around in her way that we are all familiar with. She understood on a cellular level that no matter how hard life is, no matter how much grief or trauma you are forced to manage, life is still meant to be lived. My grandmother literally fell asleep while having breakfast. In her last conversation with me she told me, “Daniela, it is time to go. It is time!” I cried and was rather rude and told her that this is not the time yet and that she should remain positive. She just smiled, we said we love each other and she hung up. I felt deep inside that this was our last conversation. Four days later, she passed away. Her commitment to joy is my inheritance.
My son sat next to me in the funeral home today and wiped away my tears when I cried. Bless his heart. His love was exactly what I needed at that time. He smiled at me and whispered, “Mommy, grandma is at a better place now. No more pain. And she can float on a cloud. How awesome is that?”
If you ask those who knew my grandmother what they remember most about her, they will tell you about her smile, how she was able to take over a room with her craziness and funny behaviour, and how generous she was. She was always smiling. Even in the end, smiling-through-the-pain kind of way, but in a way that was genuine and full of love. In the end, she was sick often and honest about her struggles. She knew joy was essential to her survival and any tiny chance of healing.
So, at lunch after the funeral, we raised our glasses to grandma. We smiled and made a couple of jokes. Jokes she would have made. We deserve joy, even if it is at times tinged with grief. Experiencing joy, even in hard times, is one of the many ways I continue to love her. Remembering the good times as much as the bad times.
I hope people get to live a life with purpose and joy. Part of that purpose and even part of that joy is to allow yourself to contemplate the end of your life. I hope people use this article as an opportunity to talk about their worries and hopes and decisions for their end of life and not just feel that this is so terrible to contemplate that the best solution is to not talk about it at all. Facing the end of life together is hard, and nobody does it perfectly; elegance and ease are not required. Being honest is what’s needed.
I miss her. Her noise and the energy and the fun. And the love. She was a very loving person. This was not a cold character; this was a very warm, engaged person. I still feel her presence, but I miss her being in the world.