Losing My Grandmother Hurt Way More Than I Thought It Would
Updated: Mar 26
When I think of my paternal grandmother, a lot of different memories come to mind. Shelling peas with her outside as she prepared to cook, watching her mow her own lawn and landscape her yard better than any man could, dodging the playful swing of her belt as my cousins and I made a game of running in and out of her home while she sat sylphlike in her patio chair.
I often looked at my grandmother with such an overwhelming sense of admiration and love. Her laugh was boisterous: high-pitched and so contagious even the grumpiest man might have cracked a smile if he heard it. Her eyes would grow into tiny slits when she laughed. Sometimes something would be so funny that she'd laugh uncontrollably; tears coming down her cheeks and a napkin constantly in one hand. That's one of the things she gave me...my laugh.
Of all of the things I thought about when it came to her, mortality was never one of them. In the back of my mind I think I always knew that someday she'd leave us as all my friends' grandparents had. Still, outside of my paternal grandfather who passed away when I was nine, I found relative comfort in the constant presence of the grandparents I had left. My paternal grandmother however, was the only one who was an every day part of my life.
When we were too ill to go to school my grandmother's house was where we were nursed back to health. After school we spent afternoons with her until our parents came to get us. She fed us, bathed us, and played with us with a childlike energy I had never seen in any of the other adults I knew. My cousins lived with her 24/7 and although we all had our own parents who loved us dearly, she was the additional mother we hadn‘t even had to ask for.
I called my grandmother often on days when I didn’t see her. Saved under "Abuela" she was the first number in my contacts no matter how many phones I went through. She answered the phone the same way every time, her Spanish accent uniquely intertwined with old-Crucian dialect. I often laughed and mimicked the way she greeted us with hello that sounded more like a long “Aloooo?” Conversations were almost always the same, she’d express her enthusiasm about life going well. She’d give me her blessings and wish me God’s blessings and send me on my way.
As I got older and moved off-island, I didn’t see or speak to my grandmother as often. I remember feeling immense guilt about it thinking she’d reprimand me for my distance whenever I came home, but she never did. As soon as she saw any of us we were greeted with the same love, the same warmth, the same bear-hug and lift off the ground as she did when we were children.
In 2017 my home was devastated when Hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the islands back to back. Countless homes were destroyed, people were left traumatized, and lives were changed forever. My grandmother’s home: the aquamarine house surrounded by fruit trees and filled with children that I’d associated so much of my childhood with was destroyed. Along with the dozens of things that could not be salvaged in the storms, my grandmother’s health took a turn for the worst.
In February of 2018 my father called me to break the news that she’d been diagnosed with cancer. My reaction, one of complete calm and understanding, was not what I'd expected. Instead of becoming emotional I made immediate plans to go home to see her. During that time period I think I convinced myself that despite the news I'd just been given and despite there being no talk of treatment, my grandmother would be okay. It was only when I got home and saw what the hurricanes had done to the island, to her home, and finally to her, that I realized that everything had changed.
My grandmother was bed ridden, half the size of the full figured woman who once towered over me. She was frail, her voice soft, and not as coherent as I was used to. She'd been asleep when we arrived: rest brought on by the medication being used to keep her comfortable. Her face looked smaller, hair thinner, eyes just a bit more distant than they'd ever really been. The moment I saw her I accepted that she wouldn't be able to speak to me and may not even be able to identify who I was. I worried that I would've made her ability to recognize me worse after recently shaving off all of my hair. Still, when she woke up and my aunt pointed at me and asked her "who's that?" My grandmother gave me a familiar smile and quipped "Well that's Jeaiza. And I gon' cut her tail because she cut off all her hair."
I spent an hour or so with her. In that time she spoke with my aunt and mother in short sentences. She was tired and in pain, and we wanted to let her rest. After she fell asleep my aunt showed my mother the dress she was thinking of having my grandmother wear at her funeral. In a way it never did before, the reality that she was going to die sunk in. I remember my mother suggesting that maybe I could come back and visit her again before she passed, but I already knew that this was the last time I would see her alive.
My grandmother passed in her sleep in May of 2018, and although I had tried to mentally prepare for that moment since her cancer diagnosis, the pain felt no different than if I had been caught by surprise. I didn't know how to process it. I hadn't lost a parent or a sibling or a partner, so I hesitated to call out of work. I remember my boss telling me "this is still a huge loss Jeaiza. It's family. A part of your life just changed forever. Take all the time you need." People began stepping in from all corners of my life: friends who called to make sure I was eating or just to talk, others who pitched together money to send me back home when I didn't have enough for a ticket.
I didn't feel like I deserved any of it.
My grandmother meant the world to me and the loss felt monumental, but I had never lost an immediate family member before. She had an illness that we had all been made aware of. I felt like I should have been prepared for her death, so I wasn't sure I deserved the right to be as devastated as I was. Still, I couldn't help but feel like my life had fallen apart. Someone who had been a constant was now gone. Someone who knew me from birth and loved me unconditionally was no longer here. The thought of her upcoming funeral made me sick to my stomach. From the day I heard news of her diagnosis to the months after she was buried, I cried more than I ever have in my entire life.
I felt anger and pain and hopelessness all at once. I regretted the way I hadn't formally said goodbye to her. I wondered if I should have said "I love you" a few more times or taken more time to express to her what she meant to us; to me. I wondered if she knew how appreciated she was, or that the moments she'd spent reading with me on her porch were my favorite memories. I became angry with myself for not processing the grief more quickly, and hesitated to tell anyone months later when I found myself still grieving. It was only when I went to therapy that I realized that this was the first big loss I'd really experienced. She wasn't "just" my grandmother. She was MY grandmother, and she was gone.
In the time since her passing I can't say that I've "gotten over" it, because grief doesn't work that way. Some days I think about her and smile. Other days I see her picture and feel a knot in my throat. She visits me in the occasional dream, always laughing that high pitched laugh, and I find comfort in them. My siblings and I talk about her often; how funny she was and how we all thought we had a unique nickname (just to find out at her funeral that she called us all the same thing.)
I know that my life will never be the same without her and that going back home will never feel the same when she's no longer at her house to greet me, but in that sadness I still find some joy. She could have been anyone's grandmother, but she was mine.