When I was eleven, my grandfather died. That was the first major loss of my life, and perhaps the most definitive. I was an only child, surrounded by adults. I spent my after-school hours with my grandparents while my parents worked, so my grandfather’s death shattered my foundations. After that, I felt like anyone important to me could just disappear at any time; and I could do nothing to stop it. My only peer in this was my younger cousin, like a little brother to me, who was far away in military school and unreachable. I had no one to cling to. My mother was distraught at her father’s death, and my father was fully occupied with comforting her. My uncles were absorbed with their own grief and with their wives, and I was the forgotten mourner. My local minister had picked me up from school and told me about the death, not someone I could hold onto and seek comfort from.
My grandmother was devastated, and the welter of emotions swirling through her house was overwhelming. My uncles began demanding that she dispose of my grandfather’s property and his business–raising and butchering rabbits for meat and hides–before the funeral arrangements had even been made. Finally, as my grandmother lay on the couch weeping and broken, I broke in a different way. I physically stood between my uncle and my grandmother and told him in clear words to leave her alone, that I would not permit him to keep doing this. Perhaps he realized his own bad behavior because he backed off and left us to comfort one another as best we could.
After that, my grandmother and I clung together like proverbial orphans in the storm. Her house was on the same acre of land as my parents’, so I started spending the night with her. I lay awake and listened for her breathing, terrified that it would stop and I would lose her too. I experienced night terrors and aching dreams of my grandfather riding away in a car without noticing me trying to catch up. I felt guilty about every imagined transgression: every time I had made him angry, and every time I argued with him. Without question, this was the most devastating grief I would ever experience to this day; and I was on my own.
Before the funeral, my mother impressed on my grandmother and me that we must not cry in public, that we must control our emotions. It made no sense to me at the time, and it never has. Grief is raw and bloody. A stiff upper lip might do for dealing with embarrassment, but hardly for life destroying pain. It was then that I first started to question basic assumptions about parental judgment, and particularly about caring what “other people” think. Anyone who disapproves of open grief as demonstrating a lack of self-control is welcome to his or her opinion. I now recognize it as part of the process of facing loss and beginning to move through it.