On Wednesday afternoon my grandmother (mother’s mother) died. She has been dwindling for more than a month now, so it wasn’t unexpected, just (as death always is) a surprise. My mother was there, singing songs to her (Angel Band, apparently) and was able to witness the moment. It was quiet and peaceful.
With her death, my parent’s generation officially becomes the eldest. “The grumps and now the grandgrumps,” I said to my sister, “which means we’re now the grumps.” We’re not old enough to be the grumps. Yet, here we are.
Just last week (while on vacation, I promise you I have posts coming about the trip) I wrote an article for one of Llewellyn’s annuals that deals with grief and rituals for the grieving process. The article began as a straightforward ritual: outline, words, symbols; but as I am wrote it I realized that grieving takes place in stages, and so our rituals must also take place in different places and times.
You think that their dying is the worst thing that could happen. Then they stay dead. ~Donald Hall
We grieve in the moment, we grieve while making funeral arrangements and arguing over who gets the tea towels. We grieve when we are alone, we grieve at the funeral. But it’s not enough. Grief is truly what happens when everyone has gone home; when you’ve thanked everyone for their help. Grief begins when we are once again alone, asking ‘now what?’
I had the privilege of seeing Sir Ian McKellan play King Lear several years ago. This play is about a man who has everything, and loses it all. There is an iconic moment in Act V when Lear walks on stage carrying his dead daughter in his arms. He staggers under the burden, almost falling, but refusing to drop her until he lays her gently down. Grief is heavy, it is unbearable, it is different for everyone of us. Some people find losing a parent bearable, sad but not devastating; others are crippled by their pain. They make adjustments in their life to cope with the burden of grief. Life is details: the stories that families write come from growing up together, sharing meals, and experiences. Death wrenches those details away. What is left is pain.
I didn’t write a single ritual, I wrote five, each designed for a different stage of the grief cycle.
My grandmother was an important part of my childhood. Each summer my sister and I flew to the East Coast and spent 2 or 3 weeks with my grandparents and our cousins. It was the only ‘normal’ thing I did in a year of chaos and unhappiness, a year thta repeated itself until I was in my teens.
Back in late August I wrote her a letter, sharing it hear is the best tribute I can do for her:
This weekend I canned triple berry jam. It’s a long process, and hot, standing over a steaming pot of berries and sugar, cooking them down to make jam. The results are so worth it. It always reminds me of the summers I spent with you and Grandpa and the cousins. I thought about picking blueberries in Maine and Connecticut. My first filet mignon and how grandpa always said that you don’t need a sharp knife to cut steak; good steak can be cut by a fork.
I looked forward to those summer vacations all year long. It was a chance to play and romp and eat new food, and dress up like a grown up and go to a fancy restaurant. Remember that restaurant we always used to stop in across the border in Massachusetts? It was the place Corynne tried frog’s leg; and Brad always ordered duck a l’orange. I never wanted to eat lobster, but now I love it.
Just the other day I was telling a friend about that wonderful drive across country that we did. There were so many places we saw! The Smoky Mountains, the Texas Panhandle, Yellowstone and Yosemite. Do you remember Sherry and I trying to feed the Elk in Yosemite? This is such a beautiful country, and that trip with you and Grandpa will always remind me of how lucky I am.
And I am lucky. I’m lucky to have a wonderful Grandma like you. You are a wonderful special beautiful lady and I have so many good memories that you are in. You were do patient about letting Sherry and I ‘do’ your hair all of the time . . . and letting us raid your jewelry boxes to play dress up!
I have dreams where I wander through your house in Mahwah, I can still feel the change in temperature as you go from the main floor downstairs to the rumpus room. And the smell of the flowers from the back porch while the cicadas sing.
I love you, I miss you, I’m thinking of you with love and respect.
For now, my grandmother’s name will be added to the 2011 Litany of the Dead and I will attend her funeral next week. It will be a Mass, which will be odd; I have to think about what (if anything) I might place in her coffin to go with her to the Underworld.
And, quietly, I grieve as I watch the torch pass.