I attended a funeral this week and it brought up so many things that ranged from my discomfort around death to how we choose to mourn our loved ones. I also found myself reflecting upon my process of grieving my grandmother’s death in 2009. It was then that I realized that death not only brought a finality of life but also ushered in a number of quandaries about how and why we know a person during/after their lives.
My Grandma Leola’s death was not unexpected due to illness and old age. Years before her death, I would have brief conversations on the phone with her but dementia kept her encapsulated in a world of her own while I was left wishing just to be in her presence in silence. For many years, comfortable silence was the familiar ground of our relationship as opposed to any attempt at using clumsy words to talk to each other. The majority of my memories of Grandma Leola involved weekend visits to her house as a little girl, her hugs, the overall comfort she gave to me just by being in her presence. There are also faint memories I have of the fact that Grandma possibly toted a small handgun known as “the peacemaker” in her purse, but there was never any confirmation or denial of that! Beyond the surprise trips to McDonald’s or the money she would hand over to me just because, I knew I was safe when I was with her. Nothing ever needed to be said. In fact, most of the silent exchanges took place with Grandma Leola in her chair while I sat just a few feet away. During these moments, both of us were engaged by whatever the television decided to show us.
When I journeyed to Atlanta in 2008 for my Aunt’s wedding, there was a gap of fifteen years since I last saw Grandma Leola. Due to various things like time, circumstance, and family dynamics, I found myself staring at my grandmother searching for the woman I once remembered. She was significantly smaller and there was some semblance of familiarity within her face as I shifted uncomfortably at times attempting to know this woman who now sat before me. For brief moments that could not possibly make up for the significant gap we disconnected, we sat in our silence. This time, I sat in a chair right while Grandma Leola was confined to her bed imprisoned by her illness. I was not sure if she knew I was there, but I was often told that upon hearing my voice on the phone, her face would light up. Did she remember me as the little girl I was beyond the voice of an adult that now attempted to bridge space and time through short phone conversations?
Upon my grandmother’s passing, I was initially numbed by the fact that I really did not know her as an adult nor as the woman that I’d visited just a short time prior. It was not until the day before the funeral that tears flooded my eyes as sadness and guilt attempted to stake additional claims upon me. At the funeral home, I gazed longingly at her stiff wax-like body wishing to just sit in silence with her one last time. The chaos around us would not permit it and I immediately felt a rainstorm of feelings and emotions around not having a chance to commune one last time in the way we knew how. I also found myself wanting to apologize for the lack of our abilities to know each other now versus how we knew each other when I was a little girl.
I was saddened by her passing but left disturbed by the fact that I only knew a snapshot of her from the ages of birth to 13 or 14 years old. What kind of woman was she? What was her outlook on life? What advice would she have for me as a woman in the world? Certainly who I knew my Grandma to be as a little girl would be different than how I would know and understand her or her wisdom as an adult. I don’t know the answers to these things, and perhaps, these specific questions are not important. But watching and being a part of this recent process of another family’s loss, I realized how dramatically pending death and death itself instantly transforms/challenge how and what we know of a person. While funerals indeed provide us with a way of recognizing and celebrating a life, we also struggle within this moment of mourning to keep in tact the spirit/our reality of the person who has gone on. In other words, as many of us have and eventually will gaze upon the physical body of a loved one lying in the casket, this is just one layer of our external/surface seeing. It is our minds and hearts that will truly embalm what we knew of our loved ones in waking life.