I was 11 when my first grandparent died. It was my Dad’s father, and although I was old enough to understand what death was, it wasn’t really all that upsetting to me. What struck me the most that day was seeing my Dad cry for the first time. Other than that, it was just a long, boring day a funeral parlor.
When my Mom’s mother died, I was 16 and I was there. I actually saw her die. She had been sick for a while, and was in a coma, and the whole family was around her when she took her last breath. This event is forever etched on my soul. She moaned for hours as if she was trying to tell people all the things she never got to, and didn’t die until the last of the relatives arrived. This was the first time I’d ever had real thoughts of life and death, and what existence means, what family means, and why it’s important to say the things you want to as they occur because you may never get the chance. This was also the first time I ever thought maybe people have a “time” and if they aren’t dead, it’s not “time” yet, and you still have a chance to make the most of whatever time you have left.
My uncle died when I was in my early 20’s from complications from the AIDS virus. Although I had figured it out years before, no one ever spoke of his homosexuality or his illness. This made me question what kind of family we were, and brought up all sorts of confusing emotions about how to love someone despite disagreements, or what the flip side of “protecting” children is. Not to mention my first (and lasting) feelings of true regret….that I never got the chance to say, “no matter what other people think, I love you and accept you”.
I learned the most about living from my Grandma who died a few years ago. She taught me how to live without fear of judgement, and that anything is possible if you put forth your best efforts. She lived and died own her own terms, one of which was never living to see 100. When she laid down to “nap” (ie. die) on her 99th birthday after lunch and a winning bridge game, I thought she was the most badass person I’ve ever knew. I saw that every action can be important and meaningful, even your last one.
My last grandparent, Pa, died last week. Pa had been in poor health for a while, so in a way, his death was a relief. However, you’d think I’d anticipate my emotions after all these years and death experiences. What I didn’t see coming, was this overwhelming sense of empathy for my own parents, their own struggles with aging, and the pain of having to say goodbye to their parents. I know we’re all getting older, but right now, at 34 years old, is the first time it’s sinking in that my parents will die someday. That I will have to watch them deteriorate and die….and that’s the best case scenario. I look at Leila, Carson, Fiona and all my nieces and nephews and think, “someday, they’ll have to watch us die”. I’ve never felt such a sense of mortality before.
Through all this, I now know that death isn’t just death. Every death offers each of us a unique lesson to be learned. What I know for sure, and what I will carry with me always is as follows:
1. It’s ok to cry at any age.
2. Be generous with your words. You may not get a second chance to tell someone how you feel.
3. Love is a real and lasting thing that can’t be turned off or on based on a person’s choices or actions.
4. You only get one chance, so make it count. Every last minute of it.
5. What goes around comes around. Even the people who seem the strongest are vulnerable. You have to be ready to lift them up when they need it most.
In the strangest of ways, I feel as though last weekend at my Pa’s funeral was a beautiful way to start a new year. I was able to release the feelings of sorrow and pity I had been holding for him knowing that he was miserable, and I was able to celebrate the great parts of his life with family I hadn’t seen in ages. Through all this I forgot about the funk I was in during the holidays, and now I can move forward into 2015 with a very open heart.
I love you Pa, I know that you’re at peace already.