Three weeks ago, the world lost an amazing woman: my grandmother. She was a strong, independent woman who lived on her own until she was 90. She helped raise me and my siblings (and a lot of our friends by proxy!) while our parents both worked full-time. She loved her family fiercely, and we’ll miss her just as much.
I was fortunate to visit my grandma one last time back in early March, right before lockdown happened. She was in really good spirits, and even though she was moving, processing, and responding more slowly than normal, I could tell that it was still her. Sean and I were wearing our hockey jerseys, because we were in town for a hockey game, and she asked us why we would go to a hockey game. Not why that game, or why that team, but… why on Earth we’d want to watch hockey. It made me smile.
She’d been having good days and bad days over the past few months, and I’m so thankful that my last visit was on a good day.
At the same time, though, I think I knew that it was my last visit with her. I asked Sean to take a photo of the two of us together, which I had never really done before. And as soon as the lockdown started, I knew she’d be gone before it would be safe to visit nursing homes again.
Despite all of that, when I had two missed phone calls from my mom two weeks ago, my first thought wasn’t my grandma. When I called my mom back and she said she had bad news, I was worried she or my dad were sick; despite constantly checking to see if my grandma’s nursing home had cases of coronavirus, I didn’t even consider that my grandma could be gone. In many ways, her death was both expected… and a complete surprise at the same time.
The funeral was scheduled for the following week in Grand Rapids. In normal times, it wouldn’t have been a second thought—Sean and I would have gone, my siblings would have driven or flown into town for it, and it would have been a multi-day family get together and celebration of life.
But as we all know, these aren’t normal times. My mom strongly encouraged my siblings not to travel home for it, because it wasn’t worth the risk. I, on the other hand, was only a 45-minute drive away, so she left the decision up to me.
Sean and I agreed that he wouldn’t go—I knew my cousin’s spouses wouldn’t be attending, and while I wanted his support, it wasn’t worth the risk of having another person in the room. And while I told my mom I was definitely attending, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t wavered on that decision.
I’m very much a rule-follower. I don’t do well when rules aren’t clearly defined, and I especially don’t do well when other people break the rules. That’s been one of the hardest parts of this pandemic for me: seeing other people ignore rules and knowing there’s nothing I could (or should) do about it.
In the days leading up to the service, I kept imagining that I’d be the only one wearing a mask, and I’d get side-eyes from everyone. That everyone else would be hugging and crying, and I’d have to be the asshole who said “sorry, I’m trying to keep my distance” when someone needed comfort.
In the end, after some strong encouragement from Sean (thank you, Sean), I decided to go. And, of course, all of that anxiety was in my head. After all, this is my family we’re talking about. And while we don’t agree on everything, we still love each other, and would never want to make someone feel uncomfortable for doing what’s right for them. I’m so glad that I didn’t let my anxiety get the best of me, because I never would have forgiven myself for skipping.
It helped that my mom gave me a role at the service: I was in charge of recording the ceremony so those who couldn’t attend (e.g. my siblings) would be able to watch it if they wanted. This had the added benefit of giving me an excuse to sit off to the side of the room by myself.
It also worked out really well that I recorded the service, because my great aunt (my grandma’s younger sister) couldn’t hear anything during the service. She had been having trouble with her hearing aid, and the funeral home didn’t set up the PA system because there were only 12 of us in attendance. I’m sure they would have set it up if they had realized, but no one knew until the end. Luckily, I had the recording that I could pass along so she could watch it again later.
I expected the funeral to have a heightened sense of awkwardness because of the pandemic. But to be honest, the funeral was just as awkward as all funerals are. You’re in a room with your extended family, some of whom you don’t see often, and while you’re excited to see everyone again, it’s a really depressing thing that brought you all together. Everyone feels it, no one really talks about it… it’s just awkward.
In the end, we were just a family in mourning. I was still able to catch up with my cousins, even though we kept a bit of distance and their spouses and kids couldn’t join us. We didn’t get a traditional funeral luncheon afterward, but we still went to my grandma’s house to have lunch and shamelessly steal my grandma’s flowers from her garden. (Don’t worry, she’d be so excited to know they’re going to be cared for now that she’s gone.)
Do I wish we could have had a regular funeral for my grandma? Absolutely. Was there an added layer of stress thanks to the pandemic? 100%. But in the end, a funeral is painful, with or without a pandemic. The good news is, it’s also an important step in healing.