Death was always an abstract concept in my life—I knew it existed and it had always been vaguely on my mind as something that would come eventually, but death’s grasp had never directly impacted anyone I knew, and for that I was grateful. Because I didn’t have to worry about death creeping up around the corner, I instead focused on making my life as full as possible. I packed my schedule full of everything I wanted to do so I was always moving, always working on something, never pushing off what needed to get done. I was successful; I was fulfilled.
On a hazy March afternoon while working on my math homework, I got a call from my mom. My grandma was in the hospital. She told me that my dad was already there and that she was going to visit as well, but she told me not to worry. So I didn’t—I continued working on my homework. I offhandedly told my sister what had happened, citing the fact that she shouldn’t worry, and I went about my day as productive as ever.
And then my dad came home, tears in his eyes. He told me it was bad. As my heart sank, my mind jumped to the inevitable: my grandma was going to die. My whole world stilled, and everything that had seemed important—my homework, pending AP exams, my relationships—suddenly wasn’t. I knew she wasn’t going to make it out of wherever they were treating her; I didn’t have to see her to know that. The way my dad spoke of her condition, the things the doctors had told him, I knew that I would never see her the way I wanted to again.
I visited her twice in the hospital: once when they said she was dying, and once when the doctors were to take her off of life support. I had never felt as low as I did when I was there, looking at her small body in the sterile hospital bed. I haven’t been able to get that image out of my mind. When I wasn’t visiting her, I was thinking about visiting her. The days were so long as they were happening, and I couldn’t focus on any schoolwork. I was a husk of the productive girl I used to be. Everything had lost its meaning; my grandma was dying.
She passed away six days after she was admitted, and my grieving process began the minute I was told. Denial descended on me, as the formula calls for. I didn’t know how to cope, I didn’t try. I floated through my days at school, thinking about what I would have said if I had the chance to see her one more time, wishing I had spent more time in the hospital. I felt like I didn’t know how to grieve—I couldn’t make myself put everything down and stop. I just went through my days with her on my mind.
It was like that for a while, until the funeral. I found that the only time I was angry was in the church, staring up at the murals of Jesus and his disciples. Was He the one who let her die? Didn’t He know how much it was hurting us that she was gone? I despised the murals, and the only thing that made me sicker was looking at her casket and knowing she was in there alone.
I didn’t bargain. I knew she was gone and there was nothing I could have done to stop that. After the funeral, I jumped straight to the depression stage. This phase lasted the longest for me and was the period during which I relied heavily on the fact that I was exploiting the grieving process.
I was a mess. This stage coincided with my final few weeks of the school year, so on top of studying for finals and finishing out my grades for the year, I was also up late crying and aching about the situation I was in. Most Friday nights I would go home, shut the door and lights off in my room, and lay on the carpet crying. It felt like too easy of a way out, grieving in secret, but I never wanted to cry to my parents. I spoiled myself with the drama of a weekly private cry fest; I indulged myself in melancholy far sadder and more frequent than it needed to be, and I didn’t feel bad about it. If anything, I began to boast the number of breakdowns I was having, almost as if to remind people that I had lost my grandma and it was messy and dramatic and sad. I was proud of my crying habits, and my tears turned into a personality trait.
More than that, my diet was in shambles. Before my grandmother passed away, I’d eaten moderately—I’d enjoyed decent portions and reasonable snacks. After, though, I started eating junk food whenever I felt like I needed something to do, not when I was hungry. I excused the new habit with the idea that grief-eating is a thing that exists, and I let it persist for weeks after I had reasonable cause. I hated myself for it, but I couldn’t stop. I ran a few laps at the local track now and then as a coping mechanism, but even that habit faded as my diet consumed me. I couldn’t stop.
I hated who I had become. I felt unmotivated and lazy. My grandma had died, so what was the point of me living the way she was proud of anymore? Overindulgence became toxic in every aspect of my life, and I couldn’t see a way out of its trap until I finally began to talk about her and what I was going through with honesty.
On a whim, I shared the story of my grandma’s passing with my RA group at a summer camp. It was the last night of the camp and I knew I wouldn’t see many of them again, so I figured there was no harm in telling them what I was going through. I bawled. I thought I would be able to get through the story without crying, but I proved myself wrong instantly. In the moment, though, I didn’t care. It felt so good to be talking with so much honesty. That’s when I realized how awful my habits were. My grandma had died, and I needed to be able to live to see the world she couldn’t. In that moment, surrounded by people who had quickly become my close friends, I vowed to turn my dishonest grieving into something healthier. I didn’t have to overeat or dramatically sob or hate myself to grieve for her; if anything, those behaviors were a disservice. I decided then that I could commit to being sad in a healthy way.
For me, grieving wasn’t a clean, pretty phase that promptly concluded after a few days of pain. It was a horrible, complicated period that caused me to spiral out of control and lose contact with who I thought I was for months. I was emotionally all over the place; I gained weight; I lost all sense of motivation and productivity. Looking back on it, I’m not going to excuse my behavior, but I am going to say that it’s okay. It’s okay that I let myself spiral, because I caught myself.
I recently went to my grandmother’s house for the first time since she died. It made me sad to be there without her and I cried because she’s gone, but I also found hope. The walls of her house are steeped in nostalgia and childhood laughter, and there’s enough positivity in what she left behind to let me feel whole again. I’ll never stop being sad about her passing—I don’t think I’m expected to—but I am going to live my life with the intention of happiness. I want to be generous and kind and compassionate, because that’s who she was. Death is undoubtedly the worst part of life, and dealing with its aftermath is scary and difficult. I’ve learned that firsthand. The most important part of it all, at least for me, is grieving with resilience. It’s that strength that encourages me to keep moving, to keep living, and to be someone that she’d continue to love and be proud of.
By Sophia Moore