Learning How to Grieve

Posted: November 10, 2010 in childhood, depression

I’m still processing the loss of my grandmother. Seeing my therapist this week has been invaluable in starting to sort through the spectrum of emotions I’m experiencing, which range from sadness to relief to guilt. I’m relieved that my grandma isn’t suffering anymore. She wouldn’t have wanted to live the way she has been for the last ten years or so. She was never one to let anyone else take care of her. I can’t imagine she liked being in a nursing home, being cared for around the clock because she wasn’t able to do anything for herself. Toward the end, she wasn’t even able to eat – she’s been on a feeding tube for years. She would have hated that. So in that sense, I’m not sad to let grandma go. It’s what she would have wanted.

On the other hand, I can’t stop worrying. I’m worried that maybe I didn’t love grandma enough when she was alive. My grandparents weren’t the type to say “I love you.” Even as a kid, I can’t remember if they ever said it to me. I’m not sure if I ever told my grandma how much I love her…or if I ever even said it at all. I wonder if she knew how important she was, especially when I was younger.

It was hard being at grandma’s funeral. A lot of the stories I have to tell about her involve her stepping in to fill a need that wasn’t being met by my own parents. When my mom went back to work, when I was 5 years old, she was the one who took care of me during the days.

One story stands out. When I was in first or second grade, my hair, which is naturally fine and prone to tangles, got knotted. Why my mother never insisted on brushing it, I haven’t figured out. I think I asked her about this not too long ago, and she responded that she was “always afraid to discipline me” because I threatened to have her “taken away.” I’m not really sure what that means…it doesn’t sound like something I would have said, even as a kid, because the most traumatic thing I could ever have imagined was being separated from my mom. In addition, I was like 7, and I’m fairly certain that kids say ridiculous things… Whatever the case, after a few weeks of this, my hair was a matted, tangled mess. My grandmother didn’t drive. After a few weeks of gently noting that I needed to brush my hair and seeing no results, she had my great aunt drive her into town, and she bought a pink plastic comb. The next day, when I got home from school, she was waiting for me, armed with that comb. I remember her sitting me down on the floor in front of her couch and brushing for what seemed like hours. I don’t remember it hurting, so it must have been a painstaking process for her. By the time my mom came to pick me up that evening, my hair was tangle free, and I was armed with a little pink comb and instructions on using it. I never had a problem with my hair not being brushed after that.

I reminded my mom about that story one night while we were in California for the funeral. Her response was to acknowledge what a great grandma I had to take care of me like that. That’s true…but it’s also more complicated than that. On the one hand, grandma was taking care of me. On the other hand, my mom wasn’t. And because of that, I was an angry, frustrated, miserable little kid. With all this hindsight and a new understanding of just how hurt that little kid was, I worry that maybe inadvertently I took it out on grandma. I worry that maybe she didn’t know how much I loved her, and how much she meant to me.

My therapist suggested that grandma, like grandpa, and other people who don’t typically display a lot of emotion, tend to know they are loved without needing it spelled out for them. That fits my grandma. She never asked for anything. She was the most self-sufficient person I’ve ever known, and the most humble. I don’t remember her ever purchasing anything for herself the entire time I was alive – literally, not a single piece of clothing, or a new pair of shoes, or anything. She wore hand me down jeans from my dad and uncle, and faded flannel shirts. She lived simply and never complained. She wasn’t comfortable in the modern world, but she was a master of the little world around her home. I wish I was more like her.

I told the therapist this morning that I don’t feel like I’ve really had time to grieve for my grandma yet. It’s all been such a rush, and so hectic, that I don’t feel like I’ve had time to process her death yet. The therapist reminded me that grieving isn’t the same as depression. It’s okay to be sad and still functional. It’s okay to take time to grieve and work through this process a little bit at a time. So here I am, learning how to grieve. I’m proud of myself.

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