Gero-punk Reflection: Grandparents and Grief

By Guest Gero-punk blogger

Penny Layne Thornburg

ImageThis year, I lost three grandparents over a period of five months. This has been a tremendous loss for me, and one that I underestimated. What I’ve found out about grief– besides the obvious of being powerful, uncanny, ugly, scary, raw, and that it has the ability to knock the wind out of you — is that my grief and the grief of others is the same, regardless of the person’s age. I guess I just always assumed that I would feel sad when my grandparents died, but that I would feel worse, or that my grief would be greater if someone closer to my own age died. I was very, very wrong.

Both sets of my grandparents were married for 71 years. Yes, you read that right. 71 years! Take a moment and let that sink in! That’s twice my lifetime. My mom’s parents lived in Idaho and I saw them as a child maybe 3-4 times a year. They were wonderful people and I loved them very much, but I didn’t know them, and they didn’t know me. What I mean by that is, because of distance, and personality differences and ways of having relationships, we just didn’t know each other. I didn’t know what their likes and dislikes were. I didn’t know who their friends were, or how they liked to spend their time, or how they felt about God, or about their childhoods. When we saw each other, they greeted me at the door with a hug, and when we parted ways, it ended in a hug.

During our visits, they smiled at me a lot, but they never talked to me. They didn’t take the time to get to know me. As a child, I thought there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t like me. As I became a young adult, I felt angry because it felt like they were uninterested in me. Over time, I discovered that they did love me, they even liked me, and that what they knew of me was enough for them. We all do relationships differently. I am a talker, a feeler, an observer, and I am all about expressing oneself. My grandparents were loving people. Quiet. Thinkers. Observers. Just because they didn’t talk to me much does not mean they didn’t love me. This I know for sure. As time went by, my visits to see them became less and less frequent. I went for a period of five years without seeing them. I thought of them often and loved them from far away. When I saw them at the end of that five year stretch, they were living in a nursing home.

My first glimpse of them after five years was my grandfather shuffling in his slippers, pushing my grandmother (who was now wheelchair bound). They were moving at a snail’s pace. I will never forget the washing of forgiveness that drenched my body. I was frozen still as I watched them. It took my breath away. Tears poured down my cheeks. I remember thinking, “Who could be mad at them?! This is so beautiful!” Every feeling of not being good enough and not being liked or important to them was completely washed away and was replaced with grace and deep appreciation. When I got into my grandparents’ shared room, my grandmother was petting a stuffed animal and talking to it. It was precious. She chatted about a poster on her wall and she called the little girls in the poster her daughters (they were not). When I bent down to take a photo with her, she grabbed my hand and said “Hey, I know you! You’re my granddaughter!” I will never forget that moment. It was sweet and moved me to tears. I realized in that moment was that what I knew of them and what they knew of me was enough. All that mattered is that we loved each other. It was a really wonderful and forgiving experience for me.

This past August, my grandmother died from pneumonia and heart failure. I was able to fly to Idaho for a quick 24 hours for the funeral. I remember feeling sad, but was stoic during her service. I remember feeling guilty about feeling this way and wondered what was wrong with me. I guess looking back I realize some of it was just shock. My poor grandfather was so sad. He cried a lot and was so confused and would ask the same questions over and over. My mom and her siblings had to medicate him to get him through the first few days after my grandmother died. Nine days later, my heartbroken grandfather climbed into my grandmother’s bed and had a massive stroke and died. This death really shook me up. I couldn’t believe I had gone from losing one grandparent to losing two in just a matter of nine days. I was unable to attend my grandfather’s funeral because of finances and school. I was really sad to have missed this. I was mostly sad for my mom. She is the only child of her parents who doesn’t live in Idaho, so I knew that coming back home would be really hard for her and I knew that her grief would be great, and I was worried and unsure about how to navigate through that with her. I worry that I will lose touch with my mom’s family because the grandparents aren’t there to give us motivation to get together. I will have to work extra hard to stay in contact with them. My tears eventually came and though the grief of losing them didn’t knock me off my feet, it did take me months to not feel sad anymore.

In January, I was able to be next to my grandpa’s bedside along with 4 generations of family, as we sang my dad’s dad home to Heaven. That was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been a part of. It was such a bittersweet moment. My dad’s parents have always completely immersed themselves in my life and in the lives of all their children and grandchildren. My grandparents have been my lifeline. They have cared for me and prayed for me and loved me unconditionally every single day of my life and I realized that for a few years before my grandpa died, I had anticipatory grief over what it was going to feel like to lose them.

I changed my desktop picture to my dad’s parents’ 70th wedding anniversary picture that was in the paper, right after my grandpa died in January. I look at it every day. My grief is still great for losing all my grandparents, but especially for my Grandpa Hubert. He was a staple in my life. A constant. Someone I could count on. Depend on. In a sense, I lost my Grandma Vivian when my grandpa died. She is altered. She is weak and sad. The thing about my Grandpa Hubert is, if you were to look up the word joy in the dictionary, you would see a picture of him. He completely embodied joy. It was so sad for me as his health declined, to watch him lose his abilities to do things that he always enjoyed, as well as caring for himself. I was always afraid that he wasn’t experiencing any joy. Just yesterday, I had a conversation with my grandma and she said he had joy until his final moments. She reassured me that even though his health was declining, his spirit didn’t. I was so relieved to hear this. I had been so sad and worried that he was unable to experience joy in his final days. She told me he took joy in the simple things– the housekeeper coming in to clean his room, his nurses who cared for him, the phone calls and visits from his children and grandchildren, and even in coconut cream pie that he ate on his last day of life here on earth. He took the time to get to know every single person that came into his life and let them know he was praying for them, even if he only met them one time and had no relationship with them. What a wonderful example of loving your neighbor! When we gathered around him and sang hymns to him, he threw his arms up in the air and folded his hands and brought them down to his chest. It was the single most precious experience I’ve ever witnessed. My grandparents are as close to God as anyone I know. They are my direct lifeline to God. I’ve never appreciated this more than now that Grandpa Hubert is gone.

My grandma Vivian, though altered, is still pure to her core. She will make you laugh, make you cry, pray for you, challenge you, hold you accountable, and love you with a fierceness that I don’t dare question. I will never question whether I am loved or cared for by anyone on this earth- because I know Grandma Vivian is loving me enough for an infinite amount of lifetimes. She is still the first person I call when I am crying and need to be comforted. Right after my grandpa died, my grandma was asked by a family member that if she could go anywhere, where would it be? She said she’d like to go home to Kansas where she was from. Just last week at her almost 91 years of age, she got back from a trip to Kansas. What a wonderful gift she received being able to go see some relatives for the last time and see one last time where she came from. We were all so grateful that her doctors cleared her for this last trip.

I have an elder friend, Grace. She is 92. I visit her almost every week. She is such a blessing to me. I think about what life will be like when Grace and my grandma pass. Who will fill my life with such love? Some of the best gifts I have ever received have come from my visits with Grace and my grandma. Some of the best conversations and lessons in life I have learned from these two women. Simplicity. Stillness. Love. Quiet. Peace. An ability to sit with the present. I worry that my life won’t be as rich or as full after they are gone. There is something profound about sitting still and being quiet with another. They have given me priceless and unconditional love that I have never experienced in any other relationship in my life.

Growing old brings life to the present. The past doesn’t matter. The future doesn’t matter. What matters is the here and now and these women have taught me that. I hope that long after they’re gone, I can remember to embody this principle for living- mindfulness and being fully present. They have given me more joy, more grace, more love, more comfort and compassion than any other relationship I’ve ever had. Age has nothing to do with grief. Grief is about the loss of someone wonderful that is no longer present with us. My grief is deep for the grandparents that have passed, and my anticipatory grief is even bigger for the life that will be after my elders are gone.

“The history of our grandparents is remembered not with rose petals but in the laughter and tears of their children and their children’s children. It is into us that the lives of grandparents have gone. It is in us that history becomes a future.”

~ Charles and Ann Morse


About Jenny Sasser, Ph.D.

I am a freelance educational gerontologist, writer, community activist and facilitator. I am former Chair of the Department of Human Sciences and Director of Gerontology at Marylhurst University. I joined the faculty as an adjunct member of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program in 1997 and since that time, I've been involved in designing many on-campus and web-based courses and programs for adult learners, including in Gerontology. As an undergraduate I attended Willamette University, graduating Cum Laude in Psychology and Music; my interdisciplinary graduate studies at University of Oregon and Oregon State University focused on the Human Sciences, with specialization areas in adult development and aging, women’s studies, and critical social theory and alternative research methodologies. My dissertation became part of a book published in 1996 and co-authored with Dr. Janet Lee--Blood Stories: Menarche and the Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary US Society. Over the past twenty (or more!) years I have been involved in inquiry in the areas of creativity in later life; older women's embodiment; sexuality and aging; critical Gerontological theory; transformational adult learning practices; and inter-generational friendships and cross-generational collaborative inquiry. I am co-author, with Dr. Harry R. Moody of Aging: Concepts and Controversies (now in its 10th edition!) and first author, also with Moody, of the recently published Gerontology: The Basics, as well as author/co-author of several book chapters, articles and essays. I am on the Portland Community College Gerontology Program faculty.
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1 Response to Gero-punk Reflection: Grandparents and Grief

  1. Helen Fern says:

    uhm. Wow. This brought me to tears. Beautifully written…poignant…Wonderful. Thank you Penny Layne.

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