Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Grannies

Last year, I lost both of my grandmas in a span of 3 months. In some ways it was bittersweet, but in some ways it presented me with some serious moments of reflection and grief. 

Janet "Alice" Gatlin
April 4, 1931 - July 12, 2014

My mom's mother, Grandma Gatlin as we called her, died in July. It wasn't a surprise. She had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in January. She smoked off and on (mostly on) for 60+ years of her life. She had been having some additional health issues in late fall of 2013. When she was finally diagnosed it wasn't a huge shock. She had a reasonably good attitude about it. When we talked after her diagnosis she said felt like a) duh, she had lung cancer, she smoked her whole life so what did she expect?!?! and b) that she had lived a long, plentiful life. She didn't feel like she was being ripped off or losing so many years of her life in some grand tragedy. She was as at peace as you could be with impending death.

I made it out to visit her in late June. By this point she was in hospice care and my uncle Matt had come to stay with her for the end. In many ways I felt guilty for not visiting her before this point. But in many ways it was understandable. She was a very complicated woman. Many of my family members were alienated from her at this time. Some for years and years and some for only the past few months to a year. To say she was difficult personality to deal with is an understatement. She could be hilarious and fun and lovely. She could also be biting like a rattlesnake and generally was very narcissistic person. And depending on who you were, you got more of the sunshine or more of the rain. My grandma played a game of favorites. It wasn't always stable, it wasn't always super clear, and it was not based in any kind of objective reality. I was almost always one of her favorites. I got mostly sunshine from her. But even then I would get bitten on occasion. Many more of my family members would get her stormy side. And the pain she caused to a great many of people in our family affected me even if it wasn't directed at me. I put off seeing her for so long because I knew there were many fractured relationships in the family with her and I didn't want to be in the middle of all of it. There was also part of me that was scared that in her illness she would be more stormy than normal and I didn't want one of my last visits with her to be shrouded in bad memories. In the end, I feel good about when I saw her. She was very ill and was in and out of sleep most of the time Andrea and I were there. But when she was lucid she was on her best sunshiney behavior. We talked, we laughed, we sang. And I got to say goodbye one last time and carry sweet memories with me.

The day she died I was notified when I was at a party with friends. I excused myself to go to the bathroom for a few minutes to absorb the information. I had so many conflicting feelings. Relief that she was out of pain. Relief that she couldn't cause anymore new hurts for anyone in my family. Sadness that I'd lost my grandma. Sadness that so many of her relationships were broken and unamended before death.  Happiness that I had made peace with her before she died. Gratefulness that my examination of my feelings around her death helped me to understand my own life and struggles more. Andrea and I listened to my and my grandma's special song, Forever in Blue Jeans, all the way back to Chico and up into the foothills so I could look at the stars and grieve in the quiet darkness above Chico. It was sweet and beautiful and I was so glad Andrea was by my side.

Having compassion for someone who was so complicated and difficult was hard. So many times I just wanted to be angry at her for the way she treated her family. But from the little I know about her childhood, I began to understand that her childhood was not great. And that the way she had been treated as a child invariably affected who she was as a person and how she treated her family. And how my family had been treated by her had affected the people they were and how they treated their families. And that was one of the biggest seeds of compassion I had for her, for my family and for myself. Mental illness and personality disorders are abundant and apparent in my family. She was both a root and a symptom of this cycle. In her last months, her death and after I learned to love her completely while not excusing all the hurt she caused. And now in her death, I can focus on the fond memories and the good times I had with her and not feel as conflicted and confused with recognizing that who she was to me was not who she was to everyone, and that faults and all, I believe she did the best she could with a very limited skill set. Everyone else is entitled to feel about her as they want. I would never ask them to make peace with her or her memory because their experience of her was much different. I choose to have compassion and love for them as they make sense of their feelings about her whatever they may be.

Mary Ann Briggs
October 30, 1927 - October 7th, 2014

I lost my last grandparent, my dad's mom, Grandma Briggs in October. Her death was also not unexpected. She had Alzheimer's, and in many ways, had stopped being my grandma before she died. She was my grandma, yes, but Alzheimer's had robbed her of so much that it was more of a long process of saying goodbye to the person she had been my whole life. Even when I saw her in the summer for the last time, there was still so much of her sweetness, humor and loving kindness even though she was very sick and wasn't quite sure who I was anymore. She was also in hospice care for the last few months of her life.

The Tuesday she died I didn't feel much. I had the vague feeling of sadness because she had died, but in many ways, also relief that my family wasn't waiting on her death anymore. And that closure could finally begin. So many of my family members had been paralyzed by their grief since she went to live in senior home when her Alzheimer's had gotten bad enough that she could no longer live on her own. Now that her life was over I hoped they could move through their feelings in a more permanent way rather than bobbing like buoys with each new change in her condition. I didn't even cry that first day, which actually disturbed me more than her death. I had cried when my Grandma Gatlin died and yet, here at the death of my sweet, sweet grandma I couldn't cry. I felt terrible. As if I had loved her less or something.

The next day I woke up and felt like I had absolutely no energy to teach. And that feeling was made worse by the fact that I taught a once a week 3 hour block class. Cancelling class would make making up the work way more difficult, but making it through 3 hours when I felt so hollow seemed impossible. I decided to find a documentary related to the day's topic to show and I decided to bring snacks for my class. My grandma LOVED to feed people. It was her greatest joy in life. It felt like a good way to remember her by feeding my class. As I started to explain to my class why there were snacks at the front of the room and that we'd be watching a documentary instead of our regular discussions and activities I started crying. Public crying has always been hard for me, but crying in front of my students felt a little horrifying. At the same time I thought "Oh, well there are those tears that didn't come yesterday." So many of my students came over to hug me and express their condolences before they got their snacks and we started the movie. That was actually more horrifying. I am not a touchy-feely person. I really hate touching people besides my closest, most intimate people. But I also felt like I couldn't be a jerk when I had just made several of my students cry from my raw emotion. So I hugged them all and thanked them all.

As I processed the feelings and events that week I realized why I had such a delayed reaction of grief. My Grandma Briggs was probably one of the sweetest and kind people to ever grace this earth. I didn't have a single bad memory of her. Every single memory I had of her was happy, joyous and funny. In contrast to my Grandma Gatlin, my Grandma Briggs' death felt almost "easy." It was sad, yes, but not complicated or problematic or overwhelming. I had a lot of time to make peace with her vanishing memory from Alzheimer's and I had absolutely no sorrow for how she had loved her family and the relationships she had. Even in death I was comforted by her sweetness. There was no bitterness, no hurt, nothing unresolved. And until I fed my class I didn't realize how much of my sweetness and gentleness came from her. My tears were more about how I'd lost a loving role model in my life, but how much of an impact she'd had on her family in a positive way. I had nothing to resolve and in that I found my ability to grieve her.

It was a rough year for loss, but I made it through and have come out the other side stronger, 
more stable and with a clearer sense of self than ever before.

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