Mourning, After

I couldn?t shake my grandmother's death, but opening up and writing helped me reconnect with my guardian angel.

by Jennifer Nghe

The last time I saw my grandmother was in 2014, when she was 92 and I was 10. It made her so happy to watch us grandkids play in her backyard, having fun. She laughed and giggled like crazy.

My grandmother lived in Minnesota. Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit her that often because plane tickets are expensive. But she still had a profound influence on me and I felt close to her despite the distance.

She had an amazing smile. I still remember the way her eyes squinted and her lips curled up with one slight movement. Although she had aches and pains that accompanied medical issues, she seemed to never let them get in the way of a good time. She was the life of the party at weddings or when we just went out for dinner. She had a bubbly personality and a soft, frequent laugh.

Around the time of that last visit, I had become consumed with being the top student in class. Even on vacation, I worried about my grades. But seeing my grandmother’s positive attitude helped me snap out of it. During that vacation, I became less obsessed with test scores.

Grandma taught me other lessons. She told us not to hold grudges or worry so much about what others think of you. That was big for me as I navigated adolescence and the cruelties that often come with it.

When we visited her, I loved how she constantly checked up on me at night, opening and closing the door silently, turning the heat down when it was too hot, or putting blankets over me when the air conditioning was on. I’d do anything to be able to share those small moments one last time with her.

Her Death Hits Me the Hardest

So when my grandmother died last September, it was painful. When we first got the phone call, my muscles went numb, my legs felt weak and I couldn’t breathe. Even though she was 97, I refused to think of death as an option for her.

My cousin told my family that Grandma kept gasping for air during her last 24 hours, almost as if she was drowning underwater, desperately trying to survive. I can still hear the loud beeping from my grandmother’s ventilator from one of our last conversations over the phone, and then the even louder gasps of air coming from her mouth when she whispered “daughter” to me.

The Days Get Harder

A year later, it still feels like I just learned about my grandmother’s death and the aftermath of emotions. Purchasing the black outfits. Getting ready for her memorial service. Driving to the funeral home, and then stepping out of the car, remembering the cold, thick air blowing my hair away from my face, sending chills up my arms. That breeze felt like a sign, like my grandmother knew we were coming and she was making her presence known.

The doors to the funeral home were open and I looked at the large, flat-screen TV with her name on it. My legs felt like jelly, my body went cold, and I fell into my sister’s arms.

We walked through the wide black doors, onto the maroon, diamond-patterned carpet. There was a thick smoke coming out of the room and the strong scent of traditional Vietnamese fortune sticks burning.

I felt a tug in my heart each time her name was said and a prayer was called out.

Despite the pain on that day, the coping process that followed was harder. I didn’t want to talk about her death with anyone. I refused to listen to my family talk about her, even if it was about the beautiful memories we had together.

Months later, I still cried a lot. Why did it seem like everyone was accepting her death except me? I kept feeling that it was my fault she left, because I wasn’t there that much for her. When she wasn’t in my thoughts, guilt took over, like I was forgetting her.

Pushing People Away

I started pushing away people who offered me help, including my closest friends. I shut down my feelings and instead gave off bold energy, such as snapping at them for no reason. Behaving this way felt reasonable because putting up this act was easier than having to confront my feelings.

I wasn’t following the example set by my grandmother. I decided I needed help.

My math teacher held sessions after school where students can talk privately about anything. During quarantine, we were on a conference call and I mentioned feeling like I was starting to lose it. Seeing the staggering amount of lives lost daily due to COVID-19 was not helping me. He emailed me and asked if I wanted to talk more privately. I agreed and we started texting. I began opening up about how I was feeling about my grandmother’s death.

He texted words of support, like, “It’s OK to be scared and it’s OK to reach out. I’m glad you did. There is strength in making it day after day, having all that going on inside. You’re bound to crack every once in a while.”

But my teacher also told me, “Covering up your vulnerability isn’t healthy. Think about how you might learn to cope with your emotions in a healthier, more positive way.”

I don’t like talking about my personal life to anyone. My family and I rarely talked about our emotions or feelings. But one night soon after the talk with my math teacher, I had a conversation with my older sister.

It was around midnight. We talked about our memories. My grandma’s personality, how we knew how much she loved her family without the need to say so.

“We knew if everyone was hungry and she was the only person with a meal, she’d give it away in a heartbeat,” my sister said.

When she said those words, I felt a tingling sensation down my spine. This was the first time my sister and I had had such a deep conversation. I knew someone was sharing the pain I felt and that was huge. The tears flowing down our faces, like the light sprinkles at a waterfall, felt peaceful and healing. I no longer felt like I was going through this alone.

Writing as a Coping Mechanism

Talking to my sister definitely helped me feel better, but what’s helped the most is writing in my journal. It’s helped me realize that my grandmother’s death wasn’t my fault. Writing has helped me understand that when dealing with the loss of a loved one, it will be hard in the beginning. If I feel like I need to cry, I cry. Listening to music has been another huge reliever; certain songs spark many memories I had with my grandmother.

Most of all, though, I learned that when you’re too afraid to ask for help, writing is something that can help you release pent-up thoughts. You don’t have to share it with anyone at first or at all, but at times it can feel like talking to the person you’re missing.

Recently I wrote this to my grandmother.

It’s been a year since you left us, but it feels like forever. Part of me accepts that you left, but part of me is still stuck in that seat at your funeral. Sometimes, I wish you were still here with us, so I could tell you how much you mean to me and how hard every day has been without you. I keep wishing and hoping that this was just a nightmare and I’ll wake up soon, but I know it isn’t. I know someday I’ll see you again, but I don’t know when that day will come. It just so happens that your wings were ready, but we weren’t. The day you left us was the day I made a promise. A promise to make you proud. Thank you for loving me and cherishing me the way I will forever love and cherish you. Grandma, this one’s for you.

When she wasn't in my thoughts, guilt took over, like I was forgetting her.
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