No one ever teaches you how to deal with grief.
You just sort of have to deal with it. And everyone keeps telling you that there are no right or wrong answers to how you react when someone passes away but it’s hard not to look around you at those who are experiencing the same grief and compare yourself. Should you be acting like them? Are you sad enough? Are you grieving enough? It’s confusing, on top of an already very overwhelming time.
My grandma, Millie, my mother’s mom, died at the beginning of August. I hadn’t seen her in person in maybe seven years, possibly more. I hadn’t really spoken to her in about five years. I loved that woman so much but toward the end of her life, it was hard to show that love in person. She grew to be very mean, a trait she’d always had but had never shown her grandchildren. She was overcome with depression and addiction and she refused to admit any of it and get help. It was so hard to love someone who couldn’t take the time to love themselves, who refused to love themselves, and I withdrew from her a lot. We all sort of knew her end was coming soon but it was still a shock to hear that she died. She was memorialized on September 1st, her ashes interred in the same cemetery as her mother, my great grandmother, my namesake.
It’s been so hard to know how to feel about all of it. I hadn’t had a connection to her in so long. I was sad, I AM sad but I never cried. I felt like I should, if not for the person she became, then for the person she used to be. Her death made me sad but I also felt numb and I felt guilty for that, like I wasn’t feeling enough or doing enough. I tried to but it all felt wrong. How are we supposed to grieve? As a person who has been fortunate enough to have experienced very little loss in her life, I don’t know how to react to something like this. I threw myself into caring for my mom, who was, rightfully so, grieving quite a bit and dealing with unnecessary family drama on top of it all. I threw myself into caretaker, the strong one, the one who puts aside her own emotions to take care of others because thats what I have always done because it’s kind of what was always expected of me. I’m the oldest. I take care of everyone.
When the queen died a few weeks ago, it upset me in a way that I couldn’t really understand. I had never known this woman. I didn’t even live in her country or a country that was or ever had been in her commonwealth during my lifetime. I admit, I’ve always found royalty fascinating and I found Queen Elizabeth II fascinating because of her historical impact. I know that the royal family is sort of weird in 2022 and that the people celebrating her death all over the world do have a point to an extent. I understand that the symbolism of the British monarchy is not a good one. And yet, I felt unreasonably upset about her death. I grew quiet and unsure and it eventually hit me why I felt that way.
You see, Queen Elizabeth and my nana, Lupe, my dad’s mom, were born the same year, 1926, which is a year so long ago to me that it almost seems to be unreal. The idea that there were these two women, alive, born in a year so long ago, felt impossible to me. And I think it’s the reason people felt so shocked when the Queen died. She was 96 years old but she had led for so long, been alive for so long, had been the only monarch that most of us have known, that it just felt that there was no other reality possible. She would live forever because she was invincible and immortal and how could life even seem normal without her in it. But here was the reality – she wasn’t any of those things. She was a normal, elderly woman who passed at a respectful 96 years of age.
And even though I’m an adult and I know realities and I’m not one to live with my head up in the clouds, it hit me that if the Queen wasn’t going to live forever, my Nana wasn’t either. Which is obviously something I knew but had never let myself face. My Nana was mere weeks from her own 96th birthday and I remember thinking, what kind of bash will we give her for her 100th, a birthday she was sure to want to forget but would smile graciously as the whole family put on a huge celebration. It never really occurred to me that she would never make it to that age.
I told myself I was being morose though, defeatist and that it was a product of the depression that’s been ailing me for the past few months. I told myself that it was my grandmothers death and the queens death that was making me feel darker than usual. My Nana was a fighter, always, and had the mind of someone so much younger and she never ever gave up.
But when she ended up in the hospital for the third time in a months time, it felt almost like I had jinxed it. Like I had willed it into being by just thinking about the possibility. I’m still dealing with the guilt of that, even though, logically, I know that’s crazy. But somehow, I just kind of knew that this time wasn’t going to be like the last. That she was going to fight and fight and fight, because she’s a fighter and she’s a hard ass and stubborn and that’s likely where I get it from. When my dad called me and told me that it was time to say goodbye, I was devastated but unsurprised. Despite the fact that my Nana seemed larger than life, immortal, she was an old woman who was exhausted and her body was ready to be done.
My Nana was such an integral part of my life. For a woman who had seven kids, twenty grandchildren (of which I am one) and twenty-one great grandchildren, she always managed to make you feel special, as if you weren’t just one of many. Maybe I’m biased though, maybe it was because I was a little special, myself and my five younger siblings.
We spent a lot of time with her. She babysat us a lot growing up and she raised us as much as our parents did. From the time I was six years old to ten years old, my family lived a few doors down from her and my grandpa, Hon. It was during those years that I was always “hungry at this house”. Nana made the best food and, as most grandmas go, she always wanted to feed you. Didn’t matter if I’d just eaten and was definitely not hungry – when I was at that house, I was hungry and I made that well known. My family and I would eventually move in with my grandparents when I was ten and would live there until I was nearly fourteen. After a brief couple of years spent living a few dozen miles away, a time I don’t like to think about much, my siblings and I, with our dad, moved back to that house, with my Nana, my Hon having passed the year prior. I was fifteen years old. I would live in that house until I was 29 years old and I moved out with my then-boyfriend, now-husband.
Because of that…I consider Nana to be my mom in so many ways. I could write for ages on what she taught me, what she did for me, how she made me laugh, how she inspired me and how she frustrated me, how she was the kind of woman that I could only hope to be…but we’d be here forever if I did that. I spent most of my life living under her roof, or damn close to it, and I can’t imagine if I’d be the person I am without her. The two of us couldn’t have been more different and yet I know there’s so much of her in me and I know there’s so much of her that inspires me every single day. To say she’s important would be such an insult…there aren’t enough words that are right enough to describe what she meant and still means to me.
I am luckier than most – I had the chance to say goodbye. I spent a few hours with her, four times, in the week and a half leading up to her passing on Thursday afternoon. Most people don’t get that chance and I know I am lucky for that. I am beyond grateful for that, that I got the chance to be there, to hold her hand, to watch Family Feud with her, to tell her how much I love her and to hear her say it back. I will never stop being grateful that I had that chance. It gave me the opportunity to be as ready as I could be for her to leave us and it saved me from the unexpected shock that often comes with someone passing.
But no one tells you how to grieve.
This is the biggest loss I’ve experienced in my life. As I said before, I’ve been lucky enough to have been spared a lot of loss in my life. I lost my great grandmother, who I am named after, when I was 12 but sadly I did not know her well. I lost my grandfather, my dads dad, when I was 14 and I know I cried, I know I grieved but there was so much more going on in my life that I knew I had put it aside to deal with that, because I had to. I lost my dog four years ago and that was the worst grief. I still often cry thinking about Scout and how much I miss her. But losing Nana, it feels so large and encompassing that I haven’t known what to do, how to act, how to feel.
It took me two days to cry and when I did cry, I cried a lot. I feel like I partly cried for my grandma too, as I’d been unable to cry before. But I struggle to know what to do with myself. I’ve been off work the past couple of days, giving myself time to focus on myself, to be around my husband and my cats, to process what has happened before returning to the real world and I don’t know how to act or what to say or what to do. Part of my thinks that the fact that I’m not in bed, covers pulled over my head, sobbing for hours, means that I’m not grieving enough. Part of me thinks that laying around my apartment all day is pointless and I need to get up, get moving, do something but then I feel guilty. How am I supposed to keep living, to keep having fun and do normal things when she’s gone? Life does not and cannot stop when a person has left us but I feel guilty at the idea of doing normal things. What is the proper way to grieve? I don’t know. Everyone keeps telling me that everyone grieves in different ways and there’s no right or wrong way to do it but that doesn’t feel right. It feels that I will be judged on whatever I do. Will people think that I am not sad enough, that I did not love her enough, if I go out to dinner or if I spend some time at the theme park where I work or if I post something silly or happy on my social media? Do I need to be sad forever? Do I cry? Do I laugh and share good times? Do I remember her by living my life as best that I can or do I shut down because how is there even a life without her? I simply don’t know and so instead I’m left doing nothing at all but feeling a mixture of sad and numb and guilty, so so guilty, because whatever I do or do not do makes feel like I’m not doing enough.
No one teaches you how to grieve. No one wants to think about loss because it’s the greatest pain that a person can feel. The pain of heartbreak goes away. Physical pain is temporary. But the pain of loss is incomparable because you can’t fix it. The person is gone, you can’t bring them back, the only thing you can do is say goodbye and hope that you can eventually move on and get to a point where the pain is manageable and you feel more nostalgic happiness than grief and sadness. I know that takes time. I know it does. It’s a process and it’s a harder process because of what she meant to myself, to my siblings and to my dad. She was larger than life to us, more than simple a mother or a grandmother. She was everything, our savior during our worst times, and it’s left a large, empty hole that I know I can’t fill but I can’t ignore either.
No one teaches you how to grieve. No one tells you that it will be confusing and overwhelming and, most days, you can’t figure out what to do with yourself. You don’t know what the “right” thing to do is so you sit around and do nothing and when your husband asks what you want to do, you shrug because you don’t know and you’re not sure what you should be doing. No one tells you that sometimes you have to grieve too much in a short amount of time and that sometimes you can go years without ever losing anyone to losing two important people back to back.
It’s hard because I don’t know how to take care of myself and I’ve never had people to take care of me. I’ve always been the caretaker, to my parents, to my siblings, to everyone, and so when tragedy like this happens, it’s in my nature to put my own shit aside to take care of everyone else. There’s times when this makes me so mad, so resentful, because I never asked to be the caretaker. I never wanted to be. But it’s been instilled in me for so long – you’re the oldest, you take care of your siblings – that I just don’t know how to NOT do it. I’m exhausted and depressed and dealing with grief that I have no idea how to deal with and still, I am the one making the effort to reach out to my family, to keep up the positivity as much as possible, to make sure we are seeing each other and supporting each other. I often feel if I don’t – no one else will. No one asks me if I’m okay. No one but my husband and I find myself sometimes frustrated and irritated, constantly telling him, I’M FINE, because I have no idea how to deal with someone taking care of me or treating me gently or with care because that’s just not usual. I’m the strong one, I’m the one who is the glue that holds it together, I’m the one who is called when something is wrong, I’m the one who is needed. I have had resentment for it in the past, distant and not so distant, but I love my family so much and will always want to take care of them. I can’t help it. Part of it is that I love them and can’t stand to see them in pain and that I WANT to help them but I do think part of it is also that I don’t know how else to be – this is just the way it’s always been.
No one teaches you how to grieve and it’s something I don’t particularly like learning but, of course, who would? No one likes to lose anyone, we all pretend that it’s a thing that will never happen and when it does, even when we are prepared, it still feels like we’ve been hit by a bus and there’s no remedy to fix it. We lose ourselves for a moment because we never teach ourselves how to handle when we lose someone and it’s confusing and hard and emotional and frustrating and stressful and overwhelming. Everything you do feels wrong, like you’re constantly doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing. Is life supposed to keep going or is life supposed to halt? One of those must be true and yet both of them feel so utterly wrong. I fear crying because if I cry, I’ll never stop and I don’t want that but I’m also afraid that I’m not grieving enough because I’m not crying. What is the right thing to do? I don’t know.
No one ever teaches you how to grieve but I’m learning how to now and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to learn. There is no right or wrong way to do it, I know that, but it’s still a struggle to deal with all of this pain and the feeling that you’re not doing it right. I also think that it’s a lesson that you’ll never really learn. As you grow older, you begin to lose more and more people and with each loss, you feel different and you learn to grieve all over again. Maybe one day you’ll figure out but honestly I hope not. Grief sucks, there’s no eloquent way to put it, but I never want to get used to this feeling. I want to feel it each and every time I have to feel it because it means I’m here, I’m alive, that I can feel and that I love so many people that it hurts when they aren’t there anymore.
No one ever teaches you how to grieve but I hope we never do. Because I don’t think it’s able to taught. You can only live it and you can only feel it.
And fuck, do I feel it.
Thank you all for your support and your love during this incredibly hard time. Every message, every hug, every joke, every distracting conversation means the world to me and I appreciate your patience and understanding as I grieve the two women I’ve lost in the past two months. Thank you for allowing me this time to learn how to grieve.
Rest In Peace, Rest In Power –
Lupe P Santana
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