Earlier this year, my 80-year old grandma passed away and my heart quietly broke into a million tiny pieces. Along with most other people, I have dealt with grief before. I’ve said goodbye to family members and friends and even the man I was due to marry before I met Adam.
And after each gut-wrenching loss, I kept my upper lip strong and mustered up the determination to ‘carry on’, to process my emotions and put one foot in front of the other.
But this time, I couldn’t. Externally, I was fine; I carried on as usual and plastered on a smile every morning, keeping my feelings very much to myself. Internally, I’d been feeling lost and empty and confused about why my insides felt like they were eating me up most of the time.
The death of my grandma had clearly floored me. It’s sad to say that we were expecting it – she had been plagued with dementia and COPD and other gnarly illnesses for several years, even taking on an emergency hip replacement last winter and coming through more or less unscathed.
There were regular texts and Facebook posts from family members before her death to say that the doctor feared she may not survive the night but she always did. I’d almost become immune to it all, purposefully detaching myself in an act of self-preservation.
When that dreaded day did come along in April, I didn’t feel a thing.
However, in the months after the funeral, I’d find myself unable to contain my pain at the slightest mention of the word ‘dementia’, sobbing whenever I saw a butterfly (they were her thing) or yearning for a small memento of hers to comfort me, to give me the connection to my grandma that I was desperately craving.
For someone who rarely cries these days, I knew that this behaviour was a sign that things were not as they should be. After a lot of soul searching and gentle guidance from my counsellor, it transpired that I was not only grieving the loss of my grandma but of what she symbolised to me.
My grandma represented a large part of my childhood and identity, the last solid linchpin of a fractured family unit and I was harbouring a great deal of anger and resentment for the last decade of our relationship which was now lost forever to dementia and broken down communication.
I wanted to scream every time someone said that she was ‘in a better place’ or that ‘she’s not in pain any more’ or told me I should be glad that she’d lived a long life or any other invalidating and patronising cliché, as if those hollow words somehow made it all ok. I felt like I wasn’t permitted to cry or openly grieve or share any of my own memories of my relationship with her out loud.
Last year, I went to see my grandma in the hospital after years of being estranged. I’d been warned that she wasn’t well and would most likely not know who I was. I took Adam along for moral support and as we walked in the room, she grinned and exclaimed: “I remember you – you’re my first grandbaby!”.
It took every single ounce of strength for me to fight back the tears as I breathed in her familiar scent with a tight embrace and felt like I was home again.
I introduced her to Adam and she shared tales with us both that I had never heard before. I learned about her life prior to having children, that she liked to spend her weekends dancing and attending Bolton FC games with her brothers (I didn’t actually know she had brothers until then). Instead of being sad and hateful about her illness, I was grateful that it gave us those temporary glimpses into her early life when her mind took her back to another time.
After that, I made our visits a regular thing, sometimes taking my girls along. On the drive home, I’d tell them about my own memories with my grandma. About how she paced the floor with me throughout the night when I was in labour with Lucie who eventually – and coincidentally – arrived just a few hours before my grandma’s birthday.
How when I was younger, we’d enjoy tea and hot, buttery toast together in the mornings. Or about the time she stayed over one Christmas Eve and I almost drove her insane with my giddy excitement about Father Christmas’ imminent arrival.
About how she made the best fairy cakes and homemade playdough. And about when I was really little, she’d take me to work with her and we’d hang out at the launderette together and that even now, every time I smell washing powder, it reminds me of her.
The sunny trips to Moss Bank park and picnics in her garden alongside the hydrangea plants and rows of daffodils. That before I arrived, she raised three kids singlehandedly and that I still don’t know much about her own upbringing or who her parents were or how many siblings she had.
Those visits only lasted a few months before she died and I’ll always regret not pushing to see her sooner. But now, it’s time for me to start healing and allow myself to feel the grief that has been bottled up.
I’ve realised that I need to share these stories ‘out loud’ because I’m terrified that if I continue to keep them locked away in my heart and head, they may end up lost one day.
So there you go. Here is to you, my grandma M.