It wasn’t until 8.5 years following my maternal grandfather’s death that I was able to begin to process it.
My last memories of him take place in his home a few weeks before he passed. By that point, he was so far gone that going to the hospital (which was followed by in-home hospice care) did nothing but confirm what we already deduced. I don’t remember visiting him in the hospital. What I have is the memory of how frail he was coming out of the doorway separating the back of the house from the front, shuffling across the floor toward the kitchen.
I remember wondering how his wife let him get to that point before contacting us.*
I remember we had pleasant enough conversation as he leaned over the counter in his usual place, but he was obviously uncomfortable with us being there. And he should have been.
I remember being told I couldn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t tell anyone that he was sick or that he died.
When he died, we got a death certificate. No funeral. No memorial. No article. No grave. None of his ashes.
We couldn’t tell anyone until his wife deemed it permissible. By the time that happened, I had pushed the feelings so far down I didn’t think they existed anymore.
I suppose we could have done something, but that scene would have been the 7 of us who were allowed to know sitting around a table awkwardly staring at each other or his death certificate.
I was 13 when this happened.
Early August 2016
After I moved home from college at 22, we got a call informing us that my grandfather’s wife had died.
The weeks that followed were strange and to some extent felt like I had accidentally stumbled into a soap opera and was not allowed to leave.
I came home from Disneyland with my mom to almost literally meet the mailman delivering a rather large envelope that contained a sizable stack of copies of a trust, various amendments to that trust, and last wills. There is no way to describe how it felt to not only receive that packet, but to sit and read through papers containing my grandfather’s wishes and signature (as well as his wife’s).
For a number of weeks, I didn’t fully believe it was all real; they waited a week after she died to make the initial contact. In the following weeks, I finally began to come to terms with what all of this meant.
During that time, the death of James Preston Grant finally felt real.
On September 3rd, Deborah’s family held a memorial for her at the house she and my grandfather had shared. Myself and four other family members from his side were able to attend.
Walking back into that house was surreal. I started crying as soon as I crossed the threshold of the sliding door because the inside of the house reminded me of a mausoleum. The absence of my grandfather and his wife was beyond noticeable, though her niece had done a beautiful job setting up the house and yard for the memorial. It was interesting to see that as much as things had changed, they were still very much the same.
We arrived at the house about an hour before everyone else was supposed to be there because we wanted to walk through the garden and take a moment for ourselves. The five of us walked to a bridge at the edge of the property and toasted to Grandpa and Deborah individually with their respective drinks of choice.
The memorial for Deborah started a little after 5 p.m. PST; the group at the house was joined by a collection of her family and friends via video chat from New Zealand and other locations throughout this country. Her son and niece had each prepared speeches, both of which made reference to my grandfather.
They gave us an opportunity to say something about Jim, but we all declined (this gathering was about Deborah, and we did not want to detract from that). For me, what they had done was more than enough – simply the acknowledgement of his passing by people outside our immediate bubble was enough. Truth be told, even if I would have known ahead of time that they would offer us the floor (my mom had received an offer in advance, but declined), I don’t think I would have had anything to say.
After the more traditional portion of the gathering, Deborah’s son planted a Japanese Maple in her favorite spot in the garden to commemorate both of their lives. The majority of us then stayed down in the garden and conversed.
We knew we could not leave the house without a current stair picture, especially because it is unclear how much longer the house will still be in the Grant family.
Following the memorial, there was a relatively quiet month or so of corralling ducks (they are very reluctant to do anything that resembles lining up). This process is far from over and there is still much to be done. Nowadays, this mostly consists of periods of waiting, followed by the need for “real” adult decisions to be made, which reinstates the waiting period. Despite being open about this, there is a lot that either cannot or will not be discussed (even among family members), and that is in part what is keeping this whole situation in a state of surrealism.
It has become increasingly clear that this whole ordeal is supposed to teach us patience and organization. Hollywood does a horrible job of depicting the aftermath of death – nothing happens in a timely manner, and it does not appear that there is much incentive otherwise. My advice is to take a moment and really consider how many trips to county clerks, the IRS, banks, and lawyer offices you want your family members to have to make.
This situation has also taught me that you truly never know what is just around the corner for your life.
What Comes Next
Looking back, I know that I could have defied Deborah’s requests for almost total privacy regarding my grandpa’s death. But, that’s not who I am. I dealt with it the only way I (at the time) knew how: bottle up my feelings and hope that bottle would never be reopened.
But it was.
I realize now that a lot of my behavior leading up to and following his death was a result of the complex emotions I was ignoring rooted in the resentment I felt from this situation. In no way does that excuse any of my behavior towards the people I cared about following that event, and I want to take a moment to apologize for the hurt I caused during that time. I also think it’s important that I acknowledge for those who were affected that I am more than aware of my actions, and fortunately I now understand the cause.
How do you even begin to process something that you had cast aside for the better part of a decade? How do you even begin to grieve? The truth is, you don’t have a nice “clean” beginning. You don’t get to decide when or if those feelings come back. They hit you like a freight train.
I have to say, I’m thankful that I went through the grieving process alone. I had enough trouble the first time, and I didn’t even want a chance to see if I could do it better the second time. Though I have grown a lot since then and have developed exceptionally better ways of processing emotions, I found myself keeping everyone at an arm’s distance. I did this in part because I couldn’t even begin to explain what was going on and how I was feeling. I genuinely felt like no one understood how to empathize with the situation aside from two people who are also involved with it (and to some degree I still feel this way).
All I am sure of is that after nearly a decade I can finally put that part of my life to rest. I am thankful for everything I learned about myself and the way the world is, though there are some things I wish I could have learned in a different way.
I do believe that everything (to some extent) happens for a reason, and that things happen in their time. With that, I am thankful that I made it through my last year of college before this happened because the combined stresses would have been a disaster.
I look back on all the memories from my childhood with my grandfather and his wife fondly, but it’s time to move forward.
* In the event that I did not articulate this point well enough by the end of the piece: I have no ill feelings towards my grandfather’s wife and I was saddened (albeit confused) by her passing. Do I agree with all the choices she made towards the end of his life? No, I don’t. But I don’t have to, they were hers to make, and I accept that. It is important to the narrative, though, that I share my truth. In my 13-year-old mind, not being able to acknowledge his passing seemed unfair, especially because a year and a half earlier when my paternal grandmother passed it was something everyone knew about. My feelings about what happened in 2007 and 2008 are just as valid as the right she had to make her choices in all the situations she faced – they were complex, and more than one person should have had to handle. It is equally important to note that my grandpa was a very strong willed man, and it was not her fault that we were shielded from the severity of his declining health.
Written in August and September 2016