By Jenna Hatfield
While my grandmother may not have been my mother, she mothered me.
I’ve known grief.
I’ve fought it off, angry and afraid in the same breath. I’ve wallowed in it, allowing it to wrap me up in its dark cloak of solitude. I’ve ignored it, pretending it away for a moment, for longer.
I thought the sudden loss of my grandfather and two of my husband’s relatives in quick succession felt unbearable. Different than the loss of my daughter to adoption, these beloved figures in my life were simply gone. I dreamed of my grandfather’s voice, of riding in cars with him as I did as a child.
But grief, as it does, ebbs and flows, and while I missed my grandfather, I felt whole again.
Until my grandmother, his wife, died last June.
I grew up on a farm with my grandparents. They lived just across the driveway for the first seven years of my life, and then down a great big hill when my parents built a new house. I spent my after school hours with my grandma, helping her start dinner, watching television, playing with her dogs. She made my formal dresses as I grew into a teenager, helped me get ready for proms, brought a suit up to college for an important event, and worked diligently on the decorations for my wedding.
Even though it should have occurred to me she would someday be gone, it didn’t.
My grandmother always stood as a strong, positive fixture in my life. Sure, she told me how my brown 1990s lipstick didn’t match my skin tone (she was right) and ragged on my nose ring and tattoos, but she lifted me up in so many other ways. She taught me to sew. She sent beautiful letters when I felt homesick in college. She sat with me in the hospital when I first became sick during my pregnancy with my daughter; her presence during that time calmed me then and soothes me now.
The final diagnosis of renal cancer caught the entire family off guard, but it wasn’t until I made it to the hospital the day before she entered hospice that I allowed myself to believe my grandmother was, in fact, dying. I held her hand in mine and knew she would leave us soon. Two days later, my grandmother passed away.
For ten months I’ve been waiting for it to get better, this grief and grieving, this loss of someone who mattered so much in my life. She too appears to me in dreams, sometimes with my grandfather and often times without. Recently we sat on her back porch and watched her dog chase chipmunks.
I miss those little things.
I cry when I make macaroni and cheese the way she taught me. I feel a heavy weight of sadness when I need help picking new curtains and she’s not there to call. I miss her so much some days I feel a physical pain.
“But she’s just your grandma. It’s not like she was your mom.”
I’ve heard it, and I’ve even whispered it to myself on hard days. My mother is still very much alive, dealing with her own grief of having lost her mother-in-law and mother just four months apart. Yes, my mother is still with me for what I hope is a long, long time.
While my grandmother may not have been my mother, she mothered me. In our weekly telephone calls as an adult, she offered me advice on dealing with fussy babies and stubborn toddlers. “You’re doing such a great job raising those boys,” she told me regularly. She listened, she comforted, she mothered.
While walking in the cemetery with my seven-year-old son recently, he asked a series of questions about life, death, and the afterlife. He talked of missing my grandmother, his Big Mamaw, as the boys called her. I let him talk and process, as I do every time we end up here, and added my own bits of understanding, sadness, and question-prompting.
“I just miss her. Like, I BIG miss her. You know, for BIG Mamaw,” he said, never missing a step.
I nodded, a bit too choked up to respond in the immediacy. I let the words he spoke hang over us both as we walked past gravestones of people long gone before either of us entered this world. I assume we all have someone—or even someones—we will Big Miss when they die. It matters not how directly they were related or if at all.
What matters, I suspect, is that we loved them in the first place. Learning to feel the presence of that love without the presence of that person slowly helps the grief feel less Big, what turns the Big Grief into just grief and the grief into missing and the missing into pleasant memories.
For now, I work on getting out of the Big Grief stage by allowing myself to feel, to write, to do what I need to do in this moment. She would be proud of me for that.
Jenna Hatfield lives in Ohio with her husband, two sons, and crazy dog. A writer, editor, marathon runner, and birth mother involved in a fully open adoption, she somehow also manages to blog at http://stopdropandblog.com.
Photo: Breno Machado