It starts with text from a friend, letting you know someone’s grandparent has passed. Your heart sinks a bit with the sympathy you feel for whoever has lost them. You go to the funeral but can’t help feeling out of place. You never knew the person the prayers are being said for or the reason why a poem was read in lieu of a eulogy. For you, this loss is merely a moment of sadness for your friend. A thought, perhaps, of your own grandparents and how they too are inching ever closer to eternal silence. But after this second passes, normality is restored and the world goes on. Your life is shaken for a brief minute but the vase hasn’t yet fallen off the mantelpiece.
Until it happens to you. And the vase tumbles down and is shattered.
For a lot of people, myself included, the loss of grandparents is significant. For my eighteen years, I had seen mine every Sunday. I knew, of course, they would not be around forever. My nan died in February, before my last mock exam, after several on/off weeks in hospital since the previous September. Her chronic illnesses and mentality had confined her to the house for years. She was usually stubborn, however her passing anything but. She was simply talking away to a patient in the bed beside her when she just slipped away from this world. It was peaceful and just. My grandad too was spending time in hospital during this period. When I opened the door to their vacant home a few days later, I had never experienced an emptiness like it. My nan’s spirit had fled, it did not linger or gradually fade away, it had just vanished.
After midterm break, when all my friends had spent a week celebrating the end of mocks, my life wasn’t even slightly normal again. My grandad was still sick. My sister was moving to England. I was trying not to fall apart. My parents begged me to focus on my studies. And I tried, but in those lonely hours, sitting cooped up in my room, I could not help but wonder about my grandad and when he would leave us. Weeks passed, I turned eighteen, had my graduation and last day in school, but there was always an unsaid darkness lingering over it all. And then one night, a week before my Leaving Cert, he inhaled and never exhaled again. It was over.
And so we went through the routine we had done just a hundred days previous. We met family, reminisced about old times, and said goodbye to him. But once again, it was time to study, given the week it was. I had a ready-made excuse not to talk to my friends for weeks and be alone. Everything in my life had changed, or would soon change, and I no longer recognised who I was. No matter how much I tried to explain, few people understood the strength it took to keep powering through. I did not have a time to grieve. Everyone else was preoccupied with exams, while I was just questioning the significance of them with everything else that had happened. In a time of such upheaval in my life, I did not want to study maths or biology or any of my other subjects. But I had no option.
I finally understood how it felt to lose a grandparent. It must’ve seemed crazy to be so upset by it to those who haven’t gone through it. It’s inevitable, sure, but that does not make it less painful. For me, they were the first family members I was truly close with who had passed away when I was at an age to fully comprehend what their deaths meant. It felt like someone had stabbed me in the chest, knocked the wind out of me and put me the Hunger Games arena. My Leaving Cert wasn’t going to wait for me to be ready. I had to move on quicker than I wanted to. It was the worst timing in the world.
No one wants to acknowledge death. It’s uncomfortable, sad and scary. It’s easier to leave it hidden in the dark branches of your mind. But you need to purge it out. You need to share the beautiful memories you have of that person and take them in your stride every day. However the truth is, you will never understand a person’s grief until it happens to you. And so, instead of turning to your friends for sympathy, try turning inwards. Smile and cry and fall apart. Your life becomes a jigsaw to be pieced back together, but when it is, you will be stronger than ever.