Gold Medal Grief: Learning to Let Go

My mama grieves like a champ. It’s one of the greatest lessons she taught me, never meaning to be the instructor in the first place. She, the unwilling and unwitting adviser to my young eyes. In less than fifteen years, life drained her of her father, her brother, her son, and her mother. I’ve awoken to blubbering sobs from her bedroom before– death’s overture. Loss lays on her eyes like a contact lens when she talks about her big brother. When the memory of him is as sad as his untimely death. But I also see joy. His laugh dances in her enunciation of him. I feel his spirit in her description. My mom mastered the useful skill of grieving healthfully– living alongside the memories of her loved ones without clinging to them, without leaving an open seat for a body no longer here. These lessons transcend beyond death. Grief is allowing every discomfort to surface, to weep in the “what could have been”, and let it go.

My maternal grandmother was a titan spirit. She died two weeks before I turned six. “Oh, so you probably don’t remember her,” people say. My grandmother refuses to be easily forgotten. This description isn’t intended to sanctify her. My mother’s mother was a flawed person like everyone else, and we missed her when she died. We still miss her now. The tricky thing about death is accepting that you won’t “get over” it. Grief’s work is moving toward a new normal, one where you miss someone you thought you’d always have, and that missing will sting like a scorpion. Other times, the memories of those we lost is a comforting blanket.

There I was, five years old, surrounded my family members who were weeping earlier and now gleefully chatted over a spread of fried chicken. I understood death is tragic. I strained to comprehend how everyone was happy. I get that now. They were talking about my grandmother– her domineering spirit, competitive drive, and her VERY strong preferences and opinions. The woman was one of a kind, uncompromising in her womanhood, unapologetic on her terms. We grieved her death the way she celebrated life.

My grandma’s death didn’t strike me until a year later. It was grandparent’s day at my elementary school. With giddy eyes and wide grins, my peers escorted their adoring grandparents around our school. You would have thought that our cubbies were the Mona Lisa and our cafeteria was the sistine chapel by the looks of wonder on the grandparents’ faces. The thought struck me, “no one will ever claim me like that again”. It was the first of many times in my life where no one showed up for me, which is another sour kind of grief. There’s a different empty for the absence of the living.

I returned home from school in tears. I crawled into my parent’s bed and wept with my mother in the dark. What reminded me of how far Grandma Jones was from me now brought me closer to my mom. Death can be a splinter or a thread. I’ve watched it do both to my family. But when it is a thread, it’s gold. It becomes gold when you talk about how that loved one isn’t here anymore. I don’t like saying they’re in “a better place” unless they were suffering because what better place is there than surrounded by your family? I don’t believe everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe my friend in middle school’s father passed away for a reason. I think it sucked. I think she was robbed of a lot of things because of it. But there is no “could have been” here. It just is. Life just goes on. Unfairly, the time continues when we ache for the whole wide world to freeze.

You cannot usher the grieving through their pain. You can bear witness to it, ask questions to exhume processing, but no person can shield another from the ruthless parts of life. They’re unavoidable. But, we all experience them. Whether young or old, our parents will pass away. And I’ve been told you never “get over it”, which makes sense because you only have one person who raised you or birthed you into this world. Even if multiple people hold the same title, there’s a tether to your two parents.

My mom taught me to live life with open palms instead of clenched fists. This means that I don’t tie myself too tightly to things, but enjoy them while they’re here. I get that there’s space for me to rejoice in the unawareness of my friends who haven’t been affected in these ways while also being insanely jealous of them. I say “I love you” often and out loud. Past the resentment of loss (whether that’s death or a job or a hobby), there’s a gratitude for the opposite (life, freedom, new space to explore new things). In the throes of loss, we learn life isn’t a race. Everything is slow motion and indistinguishable. Cheryl Strayed writes about losing her mom as “not living on planet earth”. So live elsewhere for a while. Take life on your hands and knees– crawling forward if you must. Take life in the after of loss with the knowledge that there’s an invisible tether between you and everyone you love. I believe in that– an inseverable link. Even if the person isn’t alive, the link remains. The tie is there. Unbreakable.

When my youngest sister, Kate, was born, we could feel my maternal grandmother’s presence. Kate was born three years after my grandma died–three days before my grandma’s birthday. As an infant, she resembled Grandma Jones so much– the piercing blue eyes and rosy cheeks. Kate only knows her from descriptions. But for those of us who were dwarfed in her titan wake, we fee her. Because grief is not the fence we hop over. It’s the ocean we swim through.

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