Losing a grandmother brings questions about grief, and why we feel what we feel

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Jacob Smollen as a kid with his grandmother, Mindy Smollen. (Courtesy of Jacob Smollen)

Jacob Smollen as a kid with his grandmother, Mindy Smollen. (Courtesy of Jacob Smollen)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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My grandmother, Mindy Smollen, lived a long, full life, and although her death itself was sudden, it was not entirely shocking. But having anyone you love pass away is hard. I thought about her often at night, or during the school day, and I often thought back on conversations we had had.

My grandma and I used to spend a lot of time talking about travel and art. She was really into art, so the topic came naturally for her — not so much for me. She also loved to travel, mostly to France. She loved everything about it: the language, the culture, and the food.

During the months following my grandmother’s death, I found myself wishing I had something of hers. My grandmother loved rabbits, and she sometimes gave little rabbit sculptures as gifts to family members. It seemed like everyone had one but me. Then, I found out that my sister had a handwritten letter from my grandma, only adding to my disappointment.

Why did I feel that way? And why was I searching my memories for bits and pieces of our conversations?

I decided to reach out to psychologist Charles Jacob to find out more about the grieving process.

“The task at hand is to remember and honor their memory in such a way that it does not cause us pain, but brings us some amount of comfort,” Jacob said. “Especially for folks who are grieving initially, there can be something bittersweet about the recollections of people who are lost.”

I also spoke with Jacob about my feelings of jealousy over not having a letter or anything tangible from my grandmother.

“I can see how that would cause some amount of vexation,” he said. “But I have to imagine there are a lot of different ways to remember and still feel connected to her.”

Grief is a complicated process, Jacob said, and he cited his experience with his father’s death a few years earlier.

“When we’re faced with loss, the world just keeps moving and changing around us,” he said. “The task at hand is finding a way back to some level of functioning, like, I now have to find a way to live without my father — not forget him — but also pay my taxes and brush my teeth, because those things don’t stop.”

Jacob talked about a psychologist, J. William Worden, who created a framework that says that in the wake of a loss, we try to complete four tasks. The first is to accept the reality of the loss. The second is to experience the pain of grief and process it. The third is to adjust to an environment without the person who has passed away, and the fourth is to find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life.

This framework made a lot of sense to me and how I experienced my grandmother’s death. I remember feeling sad about it for a while and just ruminating on that. Then, weeks later, her absence hit me anew, when we visited my grandpa for the first time after her death. Examining my thoughts and actions through Worden’s lens helped me understand that, in going through my memories, I was looking for an enduring connection. I was searching for what I was going to carry on from my grandmother.

Jacob also told me about some of the many ways people cope with loss. Often, he said, the most important one is just time.

“The reality is that most states of being are not sustainable long term. Eventually, we just start trending back to normal,” he said. “The trick is getting over the pain and then deriving meaning from all of it that doesn’t leave us feeling completely hopeless.”

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In the meantime, Jacob recommends talking to friends and telling stories, and, if you need to, cry. I found each of these things helpful after my grandmother passed away.

Around the time my grandmother died, a very close friend of mine lost his grandfather. At the time, I was having trouble expressing my feelings about my grandmother’s loss to my family, and so having an “outsider” to talk to, particularly one who was going through such a similar experience, was really helpful.

Finding comfort in strangers

Before I lost my grandmother, the topic of death or grief really didn’t come up much. It seems as if most people avoid it if possible. However, there is a push by some to make death and grief more of a normal dinner table conversation topic. For example, I found out about death cafes, events in which strangers meet to talk about dying over food and drinks.

I wanted to learn more about these events and the people who attend them, so I reached out to Brian Long, a death cafe facilitator from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He told me people sometimes find comfort in talking to strangers about things that they have trouble discussing with their closest relatives.

“It’s a little bit like the opening and the closing of [that] Tom Hanks movie, when [Forrest Gump] sits on a park bench and strikes up a conversation with somebody next to him,” Long said. “He doesn’t know who that person is, and that person doesn’t know who he is, but they share things.”

Jim Kirkpatrick, a death cafe facilitator in Northern California, said the conversations often give him more of an appreciation of his life and the people in it.

“Often, I’m reminded when I leave a cafe: Who do I love, and who do I reach out to?” Kirkpatrick said.

Honoring grandmother’s life

We had a memorial for my grandmother this summer, on the weekend of what would have been her 89th birthday. We gathered under a white tent in my aunt’s backyard in Cape Cod, a place my grandmother lived for 25 years, with family and friends alike, and we ate chocolate mousse and listened to French music to celebrate the life she lived.

I wish I could say I had some sort of grand epiphany after this exploration of death and grief, but the truth is, I didn’t. I certainly understand more now about how grieving functions on a psychological level, but I don’t feel any need to talk about death all the time. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that grief is an extremely subjective and personal experience.

I know I’ve learned that I love to hear stories about my grandma. I like to hear about her young and wild days and the crazy things she said to my dad growing up. And sometimes, I wish she were here to tell those stories. But I know that I will carry on with what she’s given me, things like a love of cooking and languages.

I realize now that the fact that our time with friends and family is finite gives these relationships their value. And I plan to cherish the relationships I have while I can, and to tell stories about them long after.

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