I got the text message. It was a group text that you want to ignore but you don’t because you realize that the sender is your mom. (She’s going to probably call soon to let you know she knows you didn’t read it, so you better read it.) The text read:
I thought I read it wrong. So I read it again and again. Then I stood there searching for ways to feel. I felt nothing. When I dug deeper… part of me felt joy. Grandma had been sick for sometime and there was a lot of tension around her care. I felt like her dying was a way for her to do one last good deed before she left. Then part of me felt afraid and uncertain...
Grandma Shirley was the baddest bitch I ever met in real life. She was mean and kind; rational and crazy; adventurous and practical; she embodied everything a powerful Leo woman is said to be in the online horoscopes... For as long as I could remember, grandma had a pack of Newports, a “friend”, and a bottle of Seagrams Gin by the bedside for her "friend". Grandma could entertain. She was a stone-cold, sexy- grandma who wore form-fitting, lace nighties not those matronly, cotton moo-moo dresses. She wore heels and had nice things. She went to church but she had a look that she’d shoot you dead if you messed with hers. She wrote poems and stories. She was on Facebook. She knew how to cuss somebody out real good. She traveled… a lot. She was a disciplinarian- her “no” meant “you know better”. She had rheumatoid arthritis and she wasn’t a stranger to pain. She had a horrible aneurism and didn’t die. Her body reminded me of Frida Kahlo’s- a Judas, a container that failed its spirit. Grandma was this vulnerable gentle soul, wrapped in this authoritative, larger than life, assertive, layer. A true matriarch. She’s everything a black woman must be to survive in this world… strong and determined and beautiful. And she’s gone.
I turned off all of the lights and stood in the darkness. It was so dark my eyes may as well have been closed. It felt warm and loving and reassuring. I needed to understand what I was feeling. How are adults supposed to grieve? On television people breakdown uncontrollably, throwing themselves around, but what do real people do? Do I have a smoke? Do I double up on some meds? Do I drown myself in a bottle? Do I exercise? Do I ball my eyes out in a pillow? How are adults supposed to do this? I kept standing in the dark, waiting for myself to wake up from this dream...
I’m super fortunate to have grandparents that lived into my adult years. Like all four grandparents and my step grandmother have witnessed me grow up and have a family of my own. I took for granted that my kids have great-grandparents. My great-grandmother died right before I had my oldest. I felt more pride than sadness. It was expected she would die because she was in her 90s. She got to see her great-grandkids have kids. I think it must be surreal to witness four generations of people come from you. That’s five generations of people looking into the future of possibility all at once… amazing. So when my great-grandma died, rather than a moment of sadness, it was more like a celebratory torch being passed down to the next matriarch. My grandma was now the elder matriarch, holding the torch and walking us into the light. Like my great-grandmother, I was expecting my own grandmother to meet my children’s children. But now she’s gone.
It feels too soon for grandma to go. Like the women on my mom’s side haven’t had enough time to grow and mature. Not that my mom isn’t ready to be the matriarch, but I thought we’d have more time and we’d be protected under this mitochondrial umbrella that is the oldest woman for a little longer. I feel as though we went into the game and lost by 50 points when we should’ve won by 15. The gravity of the loss hasn’t hit me yet, it’s more of the shock that we even lost that’s getting to me. It’s not frustrating, or joyous, or even confusion… it’s pure shock.
How are adults supposed to grieve? It’s maddening to lose a grandparent as an adult. You feel like Santa Claus isn’t real. Disappointment is inevitable. Your mortality is a thing. You are no longer a flitting, whimsical, innocent lifeforce… you are flesh and blood that will deteriorate and leave. The real reason you’re here becomes more evident with every breath you take. One day it’ll be your turn to carry that elder matriarchal torch and you’ll have to be strong enough to pick it up and light the way for the younger generation walking in front of you in the dark.
The matriarchal experience is a line of women walking in the dark. The oldest woman in the back holds the torch up high so that those younger ones in front of her may see. The youngest are at the front experiencing the guided path of unknowns that the woman in the back may have experienced in some capacity herself. The path of the future remains lit by the elder, so that young don’t have to choose for themselves. But when one elder dies, the next woman in the back must pick up the torch and light the path so they may all move forward. She can choose to light the past, leaving the young to walk behind her in the dark, or turn forward and let them lead her toward the future. That’s what grief is. Grief is the choice to leave the torch on the ground; pick up the torch and walk into the past; or pick up the torch and walk it into the future. This is how adults are supposed to grieve. By thinking critically about their life choices and how it will affect future generations...
In the middle of my thinking the phone rang. I found myself on a 4-way call with my siblings. We spent our time telling stories about grandma… sharing inappropriate jokes about our childhood. Making fun of each other. We even came up with a fun funeral hashtag: #ThatsWhatGrandmaWouldveWanted. I told my siblings that if anyone put a pack of Newports and a bottle of Seagrams in grandma’s casket, and yelled out “That’s What Grandma Would’ve Wanted” and got away with it, I’d give them $50. We spent the whole night making normal sentences in the conversation sound really fucked up by saying “That’s What Grandma Would’ve Wanted”. We used every moment to laugh until we ended up falling asleep on the phone together- I think “that’s what grandma would’ve wanted”. But in all seriousness, I woke up still on the phone and feeling better about the shock. I felt better about my place in the matriarchal line up. I felt better about this journey on this dimly lit path. I felt like I knew how adults are supposed to grieve.
I'm a former teacher and former college athlete, currently working to make life more equitable for all people. My mission is to get parents to partner with their child's teacher.