When I was 5, I moved to Bangladesh from the U.S. This enabled me to spend more time with my grandparents: Abdur and Amena on my father’s side; Misbahul and Samsun on my mother’s.
I loved and cherished my time with my grandparents. Samsun sat by her bed and gathered my cousins and me to tell us all kinds of captivating stories, like growing up with witch doctors in her childhood village. Afterward, I would imagine a witch doctor hiding underneath my bed and didn’t know if I should laugh or be frightened.
With Amena, I used to play Ludo, a board game where each player races pieces toward a finish line. I was, and still am, competitive, so our games usually ended with me in tears after I lost three times in a row, and Amena comforting me.
These times with my grandparents were a major part of my childhood. So when Misbahul died after contracting pneumonia in 2012, the pain hit me like an avalanche. I can still remember my family sitting beside him as he let out his last breath—that was the hardest I had ever cried. I latched onto Samsun, who was quietly sobbing and crying out, “Please, I don’t want him to go! He can’t go!” I was 8, and this was the first death that I had witnessed.
I had a nasty headache and trouble sleeping for the next few days. My mind was occupied with memories of my grandfather and questions like Will he really not come back? The image of his face, frozen, as he took his last breath haunted me for the next few weeks.
My Grandmother Doesn’t Recognize Us
In 2016, we moved back to the United States and almost as soon as we left, my three other grandparents became ill.
I wasn’t really surprised; their health was declining before I left Bangladesh. Still, the pain and guilt of not being there with them hurt me. First, Abdur contracted kidney disease that ultimately led to kidney failure, while my grandmother, Amena, suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed.
Around the same time, Samsun was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and then she, too, suffered a stroke. I spoke to her on daily video chats and saw her face basked in confusion, struggling to recognize me. I could not fathom that my own grandmother, who always noted my optimism and, like Amena, was amused by my over-competitiveness, could not remember who I was. Samsun’s mind was flying away from her.
The hardest part was witnessing the dragged-out torture of my mother losing her parent before her eyes.
My mom held back tears as her own mother looked at her in confusion. “ওহ আম্মা(Hey, mom),” she would say in Bengali. Instead of getting a verbal response on FaceTime, we were met with the face of a lost, elderly woman.
Along with the pain of seeing my grandparents like this, I began to wonder how I would feel if my own mother did not recognize me. Would I cry? Be angry or frustrated? I became consumed with these thoughts.
Am I Grieving Enough?
Abdur, Amena, and Samsun died in 2018. Samsun died during the last day of Ramadan, right before Eid al-Fitr—a religious holiday that is marked by family and community gatherings. Receiving the phone call we all dreaded on this day was particularly difficult.
By the time I was 13, I had lost all my grandparents. To distract myself, I watched TV, went on YouTube, played video games, or drew, but it wasn’t long until I was overwhelmed by immense guilt for not thinking more about my grandparents. At times, I also thought I hadn’t been attentive or loving enough to them when they were alive, and I thought my family and friends quietly judged me for it.
I wanted to be alone, but at the same time I wanted someone to cradle me and tell me everything was going to be OK. For most of my life, excelling in school, making friends, and my strong mental health were all credited to my independence.
My pride and personal fears of no longer being independent were preventing me from reaching out. This time, however, it was obvious that mourning death was not a battle won by a lone soldier.
Finally Lashing Out
As these thoughts lingered on, I suffered at school. A few of my friends brought up my sour mood but I brushed it off. I pretended to be fine when I really wasn’t. Pretty soon, my friends felt like strangers to me. I felt nervous and anxious all the time.
One night, while my family was in the living room, my mom said, “You know, I noticed that you are taking an awfully long time to even finish one homework assignment. Also, what happened to those girls you hung out with? I don’t hear about them as much.”
I finally snapped.
“I loathe everyone!” I shouted. “You don’t really care about me!”
“You are being extremely disrespectful, and you will not speak to us like that again!” my dad yelled.
This reaction shocked me. I started to cry and after a few moments of silence, his eyes softened and he said, “What happened?”
I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs that I missed my grandparents so much and how unfair it was that they all died while I was so far away. I couldn’t, though. I walked into my room where I spent the rest of the night.
Keeping Memories of My Grandparents Stories Alive
A few months later, my father and I took a walk down to Astoria Park, near where we live in Queens. We sat on a bench as the sun began to turn a golden hue.
Ever since my father had raised his voice at me, he had tried several times to speak to me about why I was so upset, but danced around the subject of my grandparents’ deaths. This time he was more direct.
“I know it hurts, but humanity is mortal,” he began. “Maybe we could have helped more had we still been in Bangladesh but the time is now gone, and we have to march on.” I could see it pained him to say this and that struck me, knowing how much he hurt, too. I wasn’t alone.
He continued on in a strong voice.
“They taught us many things. Respect. Love. Patience. They are all important. Don’t forget them.” He went on to say that yes, it hurts, but I shouldn’t hold onto their memories as thorns on a rose but instead I should let them bloom like flowers in spring. I should pass on their memories and lessons with pride to those around me.
I looked at my dad and I smiled. I now knew it was natural to feel the way I did. I feel like many teens don’t know how to cope with death, particularly when so many happen in such a short period of time.
Now, whenever I get the opportunity, I share stories passed down to me from my grandparents. On rainy days, when my family is sprawled in the living room, I bring up Abdur’s tales of his time as a contractor building half the bridges in northern Bangladesh, or when he was a star cricket player.
Or I’ll bring up the time we got lost in a park. I was so scared then, but he reassured me that he was there for me. They will always be there with me, in my memories and my heart.