Dealing With Death and Your Mental Health - An Honest Example
My grandma died two days ago.
She was my last surviving grandparent.
And I didn't respond in the way I thought I would.
I didn't cry.
Then, I felt bad about the fact that I wasn't crying.
I felt guilty.
But in a way, it was a relief.
She was so unhappy for so long, and my mind immediately grasped the thought:
"I'm so glad she's not miserable anymore."
In the United States, we don't talk about death very much.
Just like we don't talk about mental health very much.
Not doing so deprives us of learning about the full spectrum of who we are.
It deprives us of learning to deal with death and our mental health.
Here's a proposed process for thinking about both of them, a process to open up closed minds and heal broken hearts.
Dealing with Death as a Mental Health Process
My grandma had always been a looming presence in my family's life.
The daughter of Lithuanian immigrants to America, she was born in 1932, a year marred by economic uncertainty and limited possibilities.
Out of this backdrop emerged a fighter.
Tenacious as she was beautiful in her young age, she always did what she wanted, and she acted this way to a fault.
A white woman marrying a black man was risky business in the 40's and 50's, even in upstate New York.
Still, she knew what she wanted, and she persisted, having four children and adopting one more, a little girl, who was the missing puzzle piece for the four boys she and her husband already had.
I share this because all difficult stories have a beautiful start somewhere, but this is likely where the beauty ends.
Because my grandma? She was a complex person.
And the tough living and lack of love in her family of origin morphed into a selfishness of thought and behavior that was passed down to my father and his siblings.
They fared better, and it's because they accepted the challenge and learned to live with it and shelter their kids from the inclement storms that were my grandma's emotions.
In my family, dealing with my grandma's emotions became a game of sorts, an oddity to be discussed and joked about when she left and returned to Binghamton, NY where she lived.
And now she's gone, and there's not even narcissism to manage or talk about.
So much time caring for her over the last decade is now freed up to go elsewhere.
Dealing With Grief as a Manifestation of Thoughts, Behaviors, and Emotions
I tweeted about my grandma's passing on the day it happened, and someone who works with the elderly in their last days said this:
"People often die as they lived."
It's unfortunate, but it sounds true.
And my grandma went out swinging.
The food at the nursing home was never good enough.
Now it was better in the hospital.
She was never going back to the nursing home.
My dad listened patiently and continued to check on her.
And then she left this world.
From congestive heart failure.
She didn't want to take the medicine for it because it wasn't the right kind, according to her.
But my dad told me when I called him on the day of my grandma's death, "I feel prepared."
And that's good.
Because he has grieved her many times over.
My dad's not one to get emotional, but he loved his mother.
And it's obvious from how much time he spent caring for her, even when she was not kind to him or badmouthed his siblings.
I loved her too, if not for what she did, but for her way of being.
In a society that demands conformity and channels people into consumer trends and convenient lifestyles, she was her own person.
She always had a mission.
There was always someone out to get her, someone who was doing her wrong.
Most people leave it at that.
But she was a fighter.
She won multiple lawsuits, and no one understands how she did it.
She also fearlessly championed causes she believed in, repeatedly showing up at meetings for the NAACP.
And when her husband died very early in life from cancer, I remember her powering on unphased.
She was complex, for sure, and that complexity matches the mixed feelings I and many of my family members felt after she died.
Dealing With Strange Symptoms - The Grieving Process
When I asked my sister and my mom about how they were feeling, their words were similar to my own.
Bizarre. Relief. Surreal.
We were in the denial process, but not for long.
Above all else, our symptoms of grief were as strange as some of the behaviors my grandma exhibited when she was in this world.
And in the U.S., because we don't talk about grief enough, we don't create the space for nuanced conversations about how it should manifest.
We leave grief to the therapists when it should actually be a communal process of healing.
We're in our own denial phase because we don't like talking about death as a society.
Modern society is about glamour and perfection. Death is none of that.
I took the afternoon off work on the day my grandma died so that I could sort out my emotions.
There was a strange feeling of emptiness.
With her presence no longer in this world, I felt a pit in my stomach, a tremendous place of lack that only she could fill.
In many ways, she was the family matriarch on my dad's side, but not in the ways you would think.
Her tales were stories of ridiculous endeavors and zany characters.
We didn't always know who she was talking about, or why exactly she was talking about them, but her stories were always charged with passion and persistence.
When I was younger, she did loving things like send me birthday cards, her handwriting beautiful and precise.
She attended big events in my life, like my college graduation.
In so many ways, she was about herself, but she still showed up.
She still called, dialing my dad constantly in the final months of her life.
Her tone became angrier as she got older, but I chalk that up to her not knowing any other way to be.
How can you share love if you never learned the language?
Her life was a process like all of ours are.
It is through her challenging behavior that others learned patience and understanding.
And now here I am, wishing I had more positive memories of my grandma and worrying that it's not acceptable to share this complex response to grief.
Others, however, have assured me that it is.
Many people have come forward to say that they responded this way too.
We just don't talk about grief and its rocky edges.
But grief is part of mental health, and my grandma certainly had her mental health challenges.
In dealing with death, we're still dealing with life.
My grandma was a fighter, and she raged in her own way until the very end.
In her own way.
These are words that constantly come to mind when I think about her.
She was her own person.
She never lost sight of that.
And that is something we could all learn from.