When my grandmother passed away three years ago, I was flooded with so many emotions I couldn’t even process what I was feeling. There was intense sorrow mixed with relief, gratitude, and nostalgia. I know – that’s an odd mixture of feelings after losing someone I was incredibly close to throughout my life.
The sorrow was obvious, but I hadn’t counted on the relief. Her death was not a surprise. I had watched her slowly deteriorate from dementia for more than a year. She wasn’t suffering anymore and there is a certain amount of thanks for that when someone you love is suffering. What’s more, I was with her the night before her passing and those last moments are now beautiful and happy memories.
Gratitude came from feeling unbelievably blessed for the privilege of knowing such a beautiful person. I had the kind of relationship with her the most people will never experience with their grandparents.
Nostalgia is probably the most painful, because all the memories I cherish are also the reason I miss her so much it hurts. My only saving grace on this front is a poem she wrote to both me and my sister telling us not to cry over her. It hangs on my fridge as a daily reminder of how she wants to be remembered, (See In Grandma’s Words). This is where the gratitude comes in as well. Her poem continues to keep me grounded.
All of these emotions thrashed around inside of me with nowhere to go. There comes a moment when you realize there needs to be a release. I didn’t want it to be ugly or messy or traumatizing. I wanted it to be peaceful and joyful like my Grandma’s poem.
I did the only thing that made any sense to me. I put on my hiking shoes and went for a long trail walk. The desert sand crunched beneath my feat. Every step seemed to push the sorrow into the ground and replace it with a sense of purpose and assurance. Life will go on and it will be beautiful. The smell of creosote came with each breath. The sun lit up the mountains and sky in a glorious shade of coral. Life didn’t feel heavy with the enormous weight of loss. Not anymore.
Every emotion rolled through me, but they were no longer thrashing. The evening air, cacti, and stones all seemed to invite them to come out and simply exist. It was liberating and calming. In so many ways it allowed me to accept the natural course of life and all the feelings that go along with it.
Whenever the grief feels overwhelming I go back to that day on the desert trail.
A view along my desert trail. c.b.w. 2012
When my grandfather died last year, I found myself dealing with the same emotions all over again. Even with experience, it isn’t any easier dealing with the loss of a loved one. I held onto those thrashing emotions a bit longer this time around. I wasn’t ready to let go of something so precious.
It wasn’t until I was on vacation a few months later that I realized what I had to do. Those thrashing emotions were going to tear me apart unless I found a place for them go. Once again, I laced up my hiking shoes and went on a trail hike.
This time a thick, mossy forest reminded me to breathe. Like the desert before, it’s like the trees invited those thrashing emotions to come out and simply exist. To be surrounded by so much life – the green of the leaves and the warmth of the sun filtering through – the weight lifted once more. Life is beautiful and will go on. We hold those we love close to us no matter where they are. The pulse of the ground anchored me to this world, giving me a sense of joy that I am still here and must make the most of each day. That’s what he would have wanted me to do.
Forest Park, Oregon, c.b.w. 2015
I don’t know that grief ever totally heals, but my walks have shown me there is more to loss than sadness. I miss my grandparents every day, but I find their absence isn’t as hollow as I once believed. The memories are always there and so is the love. If I’m ever in doubt that they are near, I just remember the crunch of desert sand and the shade of thick trees.
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