My maternal grandfather, my Papa, died yesterday. He was 100 years old, so it was not entirely surprising, but it is still a loss. The loss of our family patriarch, the loss of one of my life-long role models, the end of an era for me and my cousins. I find myself in a very philosophical place today, pondering life’s big questions and the very nature of grief.
But let me start with him. Two words come to mind when I think of my grandpa: family and faith. He was an accomplished businessman—starting, growing, and selling his own company. He was a veteran, and a golfer, and a fisherman. But his two great loves were my grandma and God. His proudest legacy was the family they built, and his happiest moments were when we were all together.
While death at age 100 is not shocking, his passing yesterday was unexpected. In the morning he woke up, ate breakfast, got dressed… and then died. My grandmother, his wife, passed away two years ago. Her health had been declining for several months, so her death was anticipated if not welcomed. In some ways it was a relief for us to see an end to her pain. My grandpa’s death was not a relief, but there was a sense of rectitude and rightness to it. I was happy to imagine his soul reunited with my grandma in some other space and place.
I spoke with cousin of mine who was conceptualizing the loss in a very similar way as I, but said he wasn’t feeling grief over Papa’s passing. His phrasing struck me because I did think I was grieving. I began to wonder how each of us was defining the word “grief.”
I am not anguished by my grandfather’s passing. I am not angry about the circumstances. I am not shocked, nor am I wishing for a different outcome. I have had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, but I don’t feel broken open. I am upset, but I am not sad, at least not in the traditional sense. I feel nostalgic. I feel the Earth has lost something in his passing. I wish I could relive many of our family reunions and holiday celebrations. I miss that foundational stage of my life when my grandparents became my role models. I’m grieving memory—the memory of the grandfather of my youth—but I don’t feel robbed of a future. Perhaps that is the gift of long life. There isn’t a sense of injustice or things left undone.
The loss of unrealized things is the grief of pregnancy loss. It’s the opposite of what I’m experiencing now, and yet in some its ways similar. Nostalgic memories and unfulfilled futures are both just thoughts in our heads. We can’t get to either one, and both leave us wanting.
Months after my grandma passed, my mom shared that there was a part of her that felt like she wasn’t allowed to grieve because her mother had lived a wonderful life until 99, as if age negated the fact that my mom missed her mother. My mom is remarkable. She is a person you want around in times of crisis. She is a bit unflappable, she’s compassionate, and on top of that, she’s an ordained minister. She is very comfortable with death. She has a very clear idea about where we go after all of this. She organized and officiated her own mother’s funeral. She showed gratitude, and grace, and strength, but she didn’t feel she had permission to be in “grief.” I think she and my cousin were both thinking of grief as sadness and tears. My mom grappled with whether sadness was acceptable, my cousin was equated its absence with a lack of grief entirely. But both their experiences were an effort to come to terms with loss.
My definition of grief has broadened over the past years (perhaps too much). Grief always recognizes itself in others, and now I see it in so many ways. For me learning to grieve has been learning the human condition. We are all of us, all the time, managing feelings of loss or disappointment. We are constantly reckoning our feelings of anger, or guilt, confusion, or lack of control, with feelings of joy and acceptance. We worry when our feelings about a situation don’t square with what we think we should feel, and that makes us feel alone. The irony, of course, is that we are all together in this collective confusion.
Last night I received what I believe was a message from my grandfather. It’s a long story, but one that lead me to Second Corinthians, Chapter 12, Verse 9 (sorry to get biblical, but I did say my grandpa had an extremely strong faith). In the chapter, Paul describes a thorn in his side that torments him, and his repeated pleas for God to remove the pain, but God answers “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” God doesn’t remove the pain but gives Paul the grace to bear it. It is a beautiful metaphor for the experience of grief and other human sufferings. We are all pricked by different thorns in different ways at different times, it cannot be avoided. But we are given the power and grace to move through it.