Sometimes Goodbyes Don’t Happen, yet the gift of the Warm Memories Remain

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I am not a strong person when faced with sad news or a loss. I have watched people move through this with grace and strength. Stoic and a place of calm during a very bad storm. I admire them for their ability to stand strong. Not me, I crumble. Emotions overcome me during times of duress making me feel extremely unhelpful when a shoulder to lean on is most appreciated.

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My grandfather John and my grandmother Nellie on their wedding day on April 27, 1926. Photo courtesy of my mother who had these made up for each of her children. The only photo of I have of them.

I was recently thinking about this while attending a funeral. Listening and watching as the sadness of life unfolded on the faces of all those in mourning. How fragile and beautiful as we celebrate a life well lived and the eventual acceptance of what has taken place. I felt so very sad for them and it had me thinking how I moved through the losses in my life; especially when I was very young. How did this shape my response as I got older?

I remember when my grandfather died, I was about 9. We did all sorts of fun things together; the most enjoyable times were spent on the water, rowing or sailing. He was a carpenter by trade and lived in a small seaside town along the southern Massachusetts coast line. He loved to build things, and at the time of his death he was building me a sailboat. A boat not much bigger than a row boat, slightly wider, he had described it in detail to me, the final product was to be a surprise.

Grandparents, if you are lucky enough to have them, are a wonderful asset to a developing young person. Mine was in my life for 9 memorable years teaching me to fish with a homemade hook and sinker, navigate by the stars, row a boat and sail. That’s a lot of living to accomplish in a short amount of time. My last memory was of him leaning out the front door of the house he shared with my grandmother, to tell me and my sister to come in from the rain. A few days later he was dead.

When it happened, my grandmother came to stay at our house. I asked her why she was alone and she simply said my grandfather had a bad cold and we wouldn’t see him anymore. That was it. I saw my mother upset, my grandmother emotionless and people coming and going. I don’t remember much more than that. I never really understood what was going on, or able to say goodbye. Several days later I learned from my neighbor, who was the same age as me and lived across the street, that my grandfather was in purgatory. Having no idea what that was, I ran home and told my mother. I asked when he was coming back from that place. Her reaction was to march out of the house, go across the street and yell at the neighbor.

That was the first loss I had experienced, and I am not sure I processed its enormity. My mother, extremely sad, did sit us down to tell us he had died, he was in heaven now and that our grandmother would be coming to live with us. I remember asking her what being dead was, and she said it was like being asleep but not breathing. That is how things were handled back then, there wasn’t much in the way of emotional balance.

I’m fairly certain, when triggered, I relive this small childhood trauma that causes me to go inward and become overly upset in the face of loss, having not been able to morn my very first. Children, we have come to learn, are far more accepting of loss. When there is nothing to model, no coping mechanisms and feelings of safety that can be drawn upon, an empty and lonely landscape to maneuver is what we are left with. The scars of such events are like a trail of breadcrumbs into adulthood.

When my son’s soccer coach died suddenly, I wasn’t going to let him go to the funeral. He was too young I insisted to my husband. He was 9, the same age I was when I had my first loss. I really fought my husband on this, but he insisted. The team was going and they were going to pay their respects in their uniforms, it was the honorable thing to do he said. He was right. I learned from my son as I watched him and the other kids pay their respects and say goodbye, that loss, as hard as it is, can be important for the young to experience. If you run from grief, it will find you and cling to you. His experience was much different than mine, he was supported and encouraged to speak about how he felt, he had the support of his peers as he went through the loss of an important mentor. He would be okay.

I embrace the fact that this is just the way I am wired, some of us cry more than others. We all handle our response to loss differently. I can’t change the past, I can only understand it better. I am sure you want to know what happened to the boat? It was unfinished at the time of his death and given away. The details surrounding it are fuzzy after all these years. It was meant to be a surprise and it would stay that way. I was satisfied with the fact that he loved me enough to make it. Our adventures and life’s lessons he bestowed on me, I would remember forever. That, after all is the gift of a loving grandparent.





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