When they're alive, it's gossip; when they're gone, it's reminiscing.
In my life, the death of a loved one has often been a time of revelations.
When my great grandmother passed away, we discovered a poem she had written shortly after my great grandfather's death, 50 years before. I was barely even a teenager yet, so the most amazing thing about it for me was the incredible sadness that it expressed; children rarely think about the humanity of the adults around them, let alone the acuteness of an emotion from so many years in the past.
My friend Nick was the next person I knew to pass away, when I was 22. I met him when I went to volunteer at an organization for homeless kids; I believe he was homeless himself at the time. We always had a strange relationship, but I did consider him my friend. At his memorial, several people told me about the things he'd been doing with his life in the few months before he died. Until that moment, I never even knew that he had dreamed of opening a pizza parlor, or that he had a girlfriend. When I went to visit him in the ICU before he died, I discovered that he had a half-finished giant red star tattooed on his chest. This wouldn't have been a big deal if I hadn't been contemplating a new tattoo - red stars - for weeks without knowing about his. The day after he died, I got red stars tattooed on my arm:
(Interestingly enough, it wasn't until I found the page that I link to above that I discovered that he was actually a volunteer at the organization just like me; I always thought he was there to get help himself.)
But the biggest revelations came after my grandmother passed away almost two years ago. I learned that I had family members who would mourn with me when I was mourning, who would open up their hearts to me unhesitatingly even though I'd shunned them for most of my life, who I could depend on if I needed to. This was something I never knew I had. I discovered that my grandfather (who had passed away the summer before) wasn't the evil man my father had always painted him as. One of the aunts that I had rarely talked to before told me that he was actually a very loving man who tried to buy my grandmother a new car every year to show her how much he loved her, and who fought in the Korean War and probably suffered from PTSD because of it.
But the biggest secrets I learned were about my grandmother herself. I discovered that she loved Elvis Presley, something that she and I had in common. I found a cookbook from 1914 in the back of one of her cupboards with her mother-in-law's handwriting in it; my grandma wasn't the cookie-baking kind of grandma, but something about it made me feel as though I had learned something about her that I never knew before. Finally, the secret that meant the most to me, the secret that inspired this diary, was a simple picture, an old black and white picture from when she was very young and still incredibly beautiful. She's wearing pants and has her arms and legs wrapped around a branch that holds her in the air. The great secret is her smile in the picture. In all the years I knew my grandmother, I never saw her smile with so much pure joy. She loved to have fun, and had the same dark and absurd sense of humor as the rest of my family, but there was always sadness behind the smile I knew. I wish I had that picture now, to share with all of you, but I carry it with me only in my memory.
Just before Christmas, another beloved family member of mine died. My great great aunt - my grandmother's sister - passed away at the age of 97. She was never able to have children of her own, so she was close to all of her sister's children and, thus, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Her memorial was yesterday. My aunts emailed me and left me a voice-mail.... And I hope, when I hear from them again, they'll reveal all the little secrets about her that I never knew.
A special welcome to anyone who is new to The Grieving Room. We meet every Monday evening. Whether your loss is recent or many years ago, whether you have lost a person or a pet, or even if the person you are "mourning" is still alive ("pre-grief" can be a very lonely and confusing time) you can come to this diary and process your grieving in whatever way works for you. Share whatever you need to share. We can't solve each other's problems, but we can be a sounding board and a place of connection.