I’d never experienced true, painful, soul-shattering loss in my life until I lost my grandpa, a brave man who helped raise me into the person I am today. It’s been six months, but the hurt feels as fresh as if it happened moments ago.
Most days I’m able to deal. Most days I’m okay. Most days it’s fine. Yet there are moments when I still feel all the hurt rush out of me and I find myself sobbing. Other times, the loss feels like a bizarre dream I had, as I imagine something he’d say and it feels as if he’s right here with me.
I keep thinking back on all the advice I received six months ago. There were so many kind words and big hopes that things would get easier and we’d be able to move on from the loss. While perhaps it has gotten slightly easier to cope, I wouldn’t say I’ve ‘moved on.’ I may not cry every day, but the unexpected realization that I can’t run to Grandpa’s room and give him a hug can still break my heart.
These days, part of what brings me comfort are the memories I have with my grandpa, of which there are many. That time he taught me how to fish. The times he brought me with him to the coffee shop. The vacations, the family dinners, that one time I sat in his room as we tried to figure out the show “Lost.” Even one of the last moments I had with just my grandpa brings me comfort because I know how sincere his intentions were. It was April 28, just five days before it happened.
“Your grandfather wants to talk to you.” It’s all I hear before the other line goes dead.
I tell myself not to freak out. Or cry. Or throw my phone across the room. But it’s hard when I know he’s in the hospital, and the prognosis is grim. A few days, maybe. It’s all he’s got.
I call back. Each time the phone rings and I hear a click on the other line, my heart jumps, only to be let down. “Your call has been forwarded to an automatic voice message system,” the robotic voice says. The only thing that’s in my grandfather’s voice is his own name, Hank, but that sounds hollow and I don’t want to listen. Suddenly I’m angry he didn’t record his own personalized voicemail message. What am I going to listen to when he’s gone so I can hear his voice?
I can’t think about that now. Instead, I focus on the things around my room as I call him back again and again. Appointment cards sprawled across his desk. A print-out of an article I wrote recently about his influence on my life. A long list of contacts from his therapy group.
I’m still counting. I’ve reached 11 before I give up — 10 for practical reasons, one more for good luck. Still nothing. In my mind, I imagine it’s because that was it. He’s gone and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I’ll never know what he wanted to say. It’s over.
“Hey!” It’s not the most poignant greeting, but it’s all I can muster when the line connects and I hear my grandma say “Hello?” on the other end.
“I’m so glad you got through! He’s been waiting. Do you want to talk to him?” We pick up our conversation as if 30 minutes hasn’t passed since she first called.
“Of course,” I say, and she tells me to hold on. I can hear the phone being passed along, and immediately my heartbeat quickens.
“Hello?” he says. It feels like it’s been years since I last talked to him, and suddenly I have everything and nothing to say at the same time.
“Hi, how are you?” It feels like a dumb thing to ask.
“Hanging in there,” he says, the same thing he always says when he’s asked that question. It’s familiar and I’m happy he hasn’t changed the script. I’m not sure I could handle it. “How are you?”
He would ask how I’m doing when he’s the one who’s been confined to a hospital bed on and off for the last few weeks — told his cancer is metastasizing and there’s nothing more they can do for him.
“Good,” I answer. “So sorry about the phone call. I couldn’t get through.” And then I feel embarrassed that I’m wasting my time talking to him about things that don’t matter. Especially when a silence falls. I can’t help but start crying, even though I don’t want him to know. “I’m thinking of coming to see you today. Or would you prefer I wait until tomorrow?” The lump in my throat is a grim reminder that I’m in desperate need of a tomorrow with my grandpa. I swallow it away.
“Tomorrow,” he says, his voice low and raspy. He’s tired. He doesn’t want me to see him this way, I’m sure. But tomorrow feels far and I selfishly want him home. “Wait ‘til tomorrow.”
“All right, well I’m looking forward to seeing you.”
“Love you, too — very much.”
I can still hear the entire conversation in my mind, the way his voice sounded, and how I felt that he really wanted me to know, just then, that he did love me. If nothing else, he wanted to leave me with that — the knowledge that my grandpa really cared about me. I already knew that, of course, but it didn’t hurt to hear it again.
I think of him a lot, in the mundane day-to-day when I’m reminded of something he’d say or when his team, the Red Sox, managed to snag another World Series win. So even though the hurt lives on, I know that so too, does my grandpa. Six months later, I know — and can confidently tell others who may someday experience the same thing — that grief is strange. It is long. It is a process. And the loss of a loved one doesn’t really “stop hurting.” It’s not meant to. But if we smile when we remember the ones we loved, then I think we’re doing okay. And that’s all we can really hope for.
Resources (if your grief feels overwhelming):