My Grandma Del passed away last week. It was the day before my 43rd birthday, and about 2 months before her 88th birthday.
She was the last of my living grandparents. When Daniel called me to break the news to me, he woke me up, and the first thought that flitted across my just-waking mind was “Oh my God, I’m an orphan.” This made me smile later, through my sadness.
My sister Jen and I flew back to South Dakota and then drove 2½ hours into the northeast corner of the state to join the rest of our family to mourn our loss and to celebrate her life.
In the past 10 years I’ve lost my two other grandparents, Daniel’s grandparents, several friends, and several dogs and cats who were family too. I’m no longer the stranger to death that I was when my grandpa passed away 10 years ago. This time it felt like I was holding hands with my sadness, which meant that this time, in most moments, I could still receive the gifts of the present.
For example, this time I could notice how much good was still all around us.
I was conscious and curious about how previous versions of our family, and me, moved through difficult and sad times and how the right-now-us, and me, were moving through this one.
It felt like I was moving through my individual sadness and into gratitude for family and warm memories more easily and quickly this time.
I felt a tiny bit more present in the moment to comfort others and a teeny bit less like I was drowning in my own sadness this time.
I felt more comfortable saying goodbye at the viewing and crying with my entire family around me. I now know what my tears are, and I am rightly proud of them, and us, not ashamed.
I wasn’t entirely comfortable, but I was more comfortable than before. And I felt truly there, and truly blessed to be there.
Until the morning of the funeral.
When we arrived, the chapel was jam-packed full of people I didn’t know. Strangers to me, this rural town I visit just once each summer as an adult. My parents, Jen, and I were led to a separate room where all the rest of our family was. We learned that the four of us would walk into the chapel following the casket, because my mom is the oldest of her six siblings. Learned that everyone else would follow in behind us.
The thought of walking through that huge room of strangers, while vulnerable and crying, and not being able to see the rest of my family, terrified me.
I thought briefly of suggesting that we instead file in in order from tallest to shortest so that I could be at the end. Or alphabetically, so that I could at least be somewhere in the middle. Saying these things out loud didn’t feel appropriate to the moment, but the humor of the thoughts did make me feel a little better.
And as we walked into the chapel, for a few moments I was right. It felt awful to be following my beloved Grandma Del, in a casket, down a long aisle, and through a large room full of strangers. Too exposed. I felt lonely, then angry. My judgmental self showed up momentarily with the thought “This was poorly planned.” Ah, silly, silly girl.
Because then they began to sing. As we walked, heads down in silence, they sang Amazing Grace to us, around us, for us, and my whole world shifted.
I actually looked up at their faces. I even saw a few people that I knew. And in a couple of the strangers’ faces, I saw more tears and I saw pain that appeared deep, in some cases deeper than my own. And just like that, I was back to grateful. Back to blessed.
This community—my grandmother’s community—was completely surrounding our family with love. They were hugging us. Lifting us up. Demonstrating that we were more connected to each other, and to the entire town and surrounding area, than we’d remembered. Well, than I’d remembered anyway.
It’s funny. As a non-church goer, I don’t actually remember a word of the service or which Bible verses were read or any of the sermon that followed. I just don’t connect with words written thousands of years ago and with lectures and lessons from strangers, especially strangers on high.
During the service I mostly thought about all the flowers and plants sent by friends. I thought about putting the photo boards together with family the day before and about other fun things we’ve done as a family. Thought about my grandma’s house and yard and garden and holidays. I touched hands and shoulders and passed tissues to crying relatives.
And then I shut my eyes and felt the hundred or so rural, mostly conservative, mostly religious, farmers and townsfolk, sitting behind us, feeling our pain and crying our tears with us.
I thought about how they’d been singing to comfort all of us, including West coast city-dwelling, progressive, liberal, non-church-going, me.
We humans are not strangers.
How had I forgotten that?
We are not strangers.
As we moved out into the warm wind and June sunshine of the beautiful old Lily cemetary, my broken heart was at peace.
Grandma Del’s community,
thank you for the reminder I needed
at the exact moment I needed it.
You will not, cannot, be strangers to me again.
Rest in peace, Grandma Del.
We love you.