I want to talk about grief. We don’t talk about it enough and there’s this weird bubble of shame and disassociation around it. People tend to shy away from loss and pain… and I get it. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. Which probably says something more about ourselves and not wanting to be vulnerable or experience pain openly. I’ve been there. When someone I’ve known experiences a loss, sometimes it’s hard to find the right words or say something that doesn’t sound trite, like the inside of a lame sympathy card. Plus, they start ugly-crying and it’s like oh geez, now what? Where do I put my hands? Do I sort of pat-pat their back? Or say “it’s going to be okay?” LAME all around.
However, when you’re the one going through it, what people on the other side don’t understand is, no one expects you to fix it, or make them better. I think we all want to have the perfect, comforting words and truthfully, sometimes there just are none. Just being there, witnessing someone in pain so they aren’t alone, and letting them process it, is enough.
To me, grief is like standing in the ocean. Sometimes you’re under water in the deep, feeling totally consumed by it. As time goes on, you sort of drift towards the shallow sandy edge, where it’s under the surface but you can function through your day. Then, just as the hurt starts to subside, out of nowhere, a huge wave hits you again and you’re flattened, suddenly excusing yourself in the middle of a meeting to bawl in a bathroom stall (truth). It’s a long process and not linear in any way. But time does start to heal your heart. And I think it’s constructive to talk about it. To admit, “No I’m not okay. But I will be, eventually.”
I lost my mother-in-law Barbara this past July. Although I only knew her for 6 years, we connected immediately when I started dating my husband and she welcomed me with open arms into their family. In fact, I jokingly used to say to her that she was the deal that sealed Brandon and my union. She defied all those Monster-In-Law stereotypes — we were genuinely friends. Just before Brandon and I got engaged, I was filming a movie in Michigan. I decided sort of randomly to take two days on the back end and go visit her. My way of getting to know her before we got married. And we had an awesome time getting pedicures, shopping, listening to music while tooling around on the boat and watching crazy Netflix shows (Shameless was her current favorite before she passed). She had a wicked and dirty sense of humor that always surprised me and she knew how to poke fun in a loving manner. She was a true light and one of a kind.
Anyone that came in contact with her, from people who knew her for years, to friends who met her once, were impacted by her – her
smile, her warm, friendly attitude, her genuine joy for and humor about life. She had her first son when she was just 19, and told me stories of picking up recyclables on the side of the road to make money to buy milk, running her own in-home daycare when her boys (she had three all before the age of 30) were still at home and she needed to figure out a way to supplement the family income, and then finally working a job at 3M for years that gave her a pension. She didn’t come from much but she didn’t need much to be happy. She was just waiting to retire and finally enjoy the life of leisure she had worked so hard for.
Then Barb was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2012, a few years before her 60th birthday. And for most of Brandon and my relationship, it was a lot of ups and downs. Brutal chemo treatments, remissions, stem cell transplants, more cancer… loosing hair, regrowing hair… she went through it all. And we were there with her as much as we could be. Time off and holidays meant prioritizing family, staying in the transplant house near Mayo, going to see her when she wasn’t allowed to get on an airplane. And throughout it all, she never lost her sense of humor – never a woe is me moment, or wallowing in her lost days at home feeling sick. She had the most incredible, positive attitude through it all.
When the cancer came back in March and she tried two more aggressive treatments, her body broke down. At that point, she made the decision to get off the roller coaster and go into hospice. We knew this day would come eventually, but I guess with so many advancements, we also prayed they’d find a miracle treatment that would keep her in remission forever.
They moved a bed onto their sun porch at their home and she was assigned a nurse who would come check in weekly and she started to plan her own funeral. It was so upsetting and surreal in so many ways… how could this be happening? How was she giving up? Wasn’t there something else we could try? But I also understood it. This life of needle pricks and chemo and the waiting for the next drug wasn’t the life she wanted anymore, nor was it one she deserved.
It’s a really strange and surreal experience saying goodbye to someone who you know is going to die. My husband and daughter and I took a week and went and stayed with her. My sisters and brothers-in-law joined and there were cousins running around their farm property, playing games, laughing, sharing meals… it was truly an incredible week and she was still feeling good. It was beautiful. And morbid. I’d have these out of body moments, looking around, trying to memorize every detail, knowing it was fleeting- then she’d crack a joke and we’d all laugh and I’d think “how can she not be fine?”.
She had a friend’s daughter come over and take family pictures and Brandon and I went to Target to find her something to wear. Looking back, this was incredible foresight on her part. I will now cherish these forever.
We got her on the boat one last time and those first memories I had laughing with her, drinking beer and listening to music, all came flooding back and I couldn’t allow myself to believe this would never happen again. For lack of a better way to explain it, it was fucked up.
The last boat ride.
We were sitting on the porch one morning and we talked about fear. I asked her, “Are you afraid that you know you’re going to die?”. She told me she wasn’t. She found a lot of peace in being able to have her
funeral the way she wanted it, to share in the special moments offamily time, to receive visitors, like the endless parade they were, with their casseroles and salads. It was like a festival of love for a month, both in person and through texts and letters and Facebook messages. Also, she was tired. Tired of fighting. She felt robbed of her golden years and the retirement she had so been looking forward to, not to mention her time as a grandma… but she had lived a good life. Again, no pity party for her, thank you very much.
I wrote her a card, telling her everything I wanted her to know, because saying it would have had me wound up in a puddle of tears, and she read it and we hugged and cried before we left.
Then end came, and my husband went back and stayed for the last weeks of her life until she passed. I’m not going to lie, the end of cancer is brutal. We give our animals the respect to put them down when they are in pain, and yet we make our loved ones suffer through the agony of disease killing them slowly, taking away their basic faculties, until they are so drugged up they are unrecognizable versions of themselves. It feels inhumane and cruel. I will never understand how he had the strength to bear witness to that but I admire him greatly for his compassion and his sense of duty to a woman who gave him life. Even as the pain took over and she was no longer able to speak or eat, he sat with her so she knew she wasn’t alone. God, it makes me cry thinking about it. I cried a lot that week actually, which is also hard when you’re home alone trying to care for a 2 year old and explain why Mommy is sad.
I was also so angry this was happening. It was so unfair. That her life be cut short like this while other people, healthy as horses, complain and dwell on petty shit. Death, at close hand, puts a lot into perspective. And the fact she had to suffer through to the end as a result. Why her? Why anyone? Fucking cancer.
I had laid down to take a rare nap while Georgia was sleeping when Brandon called to tell me she had passed. I missed the call but woke up half an hour later and knew. I was almost 8 months pregnant at the time. The dawning realization that it was over hit me. She would never meet our little boy, who she was so excited about. Would Georgia even remember her beloved “Granny Nanny”? After years of fighting and weeks of pain and struggle, I felt both relief (for her) and utter devastation (for us).
We knew this was coming. I had prepared myself for it for several months at this point, which you would think would make the end easier. I ended up feeling like I mourned this loss over and over and over. And now I had to mourn again. It was an exhausting summer. We still had unpacked boxes in our living room and a baby on the way that I felt I had barely any emotional room left for. I was spent, and frightened we wouldn’t pull out of this.
Looks can be deceiving
My mom came in to help and I flew back to be with Brandon and the family. Everything went on like clockwork — she was, indeed prepared — and after two days of visitations, wakes, funeral and the burial, we were headed back to LA. It was over.
Material she had printed for her funeral. Genius.
With my mom still in town, I took Brandon away for a night. We went to the beach. He had been through a taxing few weeks and was nearly physically ill recovering from the stress. I jokingly called it the “Death Decompression”, but it worked. We swam and read and watched TV and ate at a fancy steakhouse and slept in. And, although still sad, we felt nearly felt human again, and drove back down the coast.
It’s been over a month since she passed. We’ve slowly started to work through the wave pool that has been our grief. Most days we’re good and then something dumb will remind me of her and I’ll get weepy all over again.
Or Georgia will ask for Grandma and I’ll pause, trying to figure out how to explain this to her without crying (simple and honest I have found is probably best).
I know we all have to die. I certainly don’t look forward to loosing my parents but I’m grateful to have a partner who will be there to support me. I hope everyone I know is super old and goes passively in their sleep. But I know in our lifetime, that’s not realistic. People get cancer and people die suddenly and it’s shocking and unfair and it hurts.
We have to talk about it. Holding that pain inside isn’t healthy, nor does it help us cope for whatever is next. I’m still super sad, and I’ve cried many time writing this, but it’s been therapeutic. I’m choosing to reframe Barb’s passing as my joy in getting to spend 6 wonderful years with someone, rather than all the time I didn’t get. It’s taking awhile, but I’m getting there.
One last story… one of the nights we were there in June, the guys carried the family dining table outside and we all had dinner under the big tree in their backyard. The heat had broke and it was beautiful out. Afterward, my nieces wanted to take rides on the 4-wheeler. After a few rounds watching them, Barb insisted she, too,
wanted a ride. Who was going to deny her that? Her sons helped put her on and her youngest, Joe, rode behind her. As they finished the loop, she came barreling around the corner, fist up in the air… victorious, right up to the end.
Life is beautiful, it wouldn’t hurt so much if it wasn’t.
Love you Barb.